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The alchemists: Courts as democracy-builders in contemporary thought

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 April 2017

Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, 185 Pelham Street, Carlton VIC 3053, Australia


Can courts really ‘build’ democracy in a state emerging from undemocratic rule? In contemporary thought, courts are perceived as central components in any political settlement aimed at achieving a functioning democratic order in a previously authoritarian state (this piece, unlike others in the special collection, does not specifically address post-conflict contexts). The past four decades have witnessed an increasing tendency in post-authoritarian states to place significant faith in courts as guardians of the new democratic dispensation – a trend replicated in contemporary democracy-building projects (e.g. Tunisia). Constitutional courts (including supreme courts) are expected not only to breathe life into the paper promises of the democratic constitutional text, but also, increasingly, to guard and build democracy itself by policing political adherence to emerging transnational norms of democratic governance. Outside the state, regional human rights courts have also been cast as democracy-builders, acting as a support, backup mechanism, and even surrogate for domestic courts. Yet, despite this ‘court obsession’, our understanding of courts as democracy-builders remains critically underdeveloped. This article argues that while it has been assumed that courts have a central role to play in democracy-building, this assumption is based on rather slim evidence and undermined by yawning gaps in existing research.

Special Issue: Constitution-making and political settlements in times of transition
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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6 See arts 118–125 of the 2014 Constitution. Arts 80, 84, 88 and 144 set out additional functions.

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110 Two papers presented at a conference in 2014 devoted themselves to this argument: X Soley Echeverría, ‘The Legitimatory Discourse of Inter-American Constitutional Adjudication’; and S Hentrei, ‘The Conventionality Control of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as a Manifestation of Complementarity’, ‘Latin American Constitutionalism: Between Law and Politics’, University of Glasgow, 2 July 2014. See also J Contesse, ‘Inter-American constitutionalism: the interaction between human rights and progressive constitutional law in Latin America’ in Rodríguez-Garavito, C (ed), Law and Society in Latin America: A New Map (Routledge, Abingdon, 2014).Google Scholar

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