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The alchemists: Courts as democracy-builders in contemporary thought



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.


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1 Stone, A, ‘Constitutional Courts’ in Rosenfeld, M and Sajó, A (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012) 827.

2 The concept of ‘waves’ of democratisation has been subjected to robust criticism but remains useful as a shorthand for the various global phases of democratisation: see Huntington, S, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1991) chs 1–2.

3 Horowitz, D, ‘Constitutional Courts: A Primer for Decision Makers’ in Diamond, L and Plattner, M (eds), Democracy: A Reader (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2009) 183.

4 See Mekki, N, ‘The Tunisian Constitutional Court at the Center of the Political System - and Whirlwind’ ConstitutionNet (9 February 2016) <>.

5 In the meantime, an interim body has been set up to conduct a priori review of Bills.

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

7 For instance, Kenya’s constitutional reform process, centred on the new Constitution of 2010, included the establishment of a ‘new’ Supreme Court with broader jurisdiction and powers than its previous iteration. Libya’s draft constitution of April 2016 envisages the establishment of a powerful Constitutional Court (art 150).

8 ‘Plan to establish Arab Court of Human Rights in final stage’, Arab News, 23 February 2016 <>.

9 See e.g. Lowe, R, ‘Bassiouni: New Arab Court for Human Rights is fake ‘‘Potemkin tribunal’’’ International Bar Association (1 October 2014) <>.

10 See e.g. Chiam, S, ‘Asia’s Experience in the Quest for a Regional Human Rights Mechanism’ (2009) 40 Victoria University of Wellington Law Review 127, 128.

11 See e.g. Nowak, M, ‘On the Creation of a World Court of Human Rights’ (2012) 7 National Taiwan University Law Review 257.

12 ‘Africa: AU Summit Approves Local Proposal to Create International Constitutional Court’ AllAfrica (28 January 2013) <>.

13 This is vividly underscored by the forthcoming report, compiled by the present author, of an international workshop on ‘The Judiciary and Constitutional Transitions’ held in The Hague in November 2014, organised by International IDEA and the International Development Law Organization (IDLO): <>.

14 Stone (n 1) 819.

15 Issacharoff, S, Fragile Democracies: Contested Power in the Era of Constitutional Courts (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015) 9.

16 Sweeney, JA, The European Court of Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era: Universality in Transition (Routledge, London, 2013) 1.

17 Binder, N, ‘The Prohibition of Amnesties by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ in von Bogdandy, A and Venzke, I (eds), International Judicial Lawmaking: On Public Authority and Democratic Legitimation in Global Governance (Springer, Heidelberg, 2012) 324.

18 Hart Ely, J, Democracy and Distrust. A Theory of Judicial Review (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1981).

19 Stotzky, I (ed), Transition to Democracy in Latin America: The Role of the Judiciary (Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1993).

20 See, in particular, Sadurski, W (ed), Constitutional Justice, East and West: Democratic Legitimacy and Constitutional Courts in Post-Communist Europe in a Comparative Perspective (Kluwer Law International, The Hague, 2002); Sadurski, W, Rights Before Courts: A Study of Constitutional Courts in Postcommunist States of Central and Eastern Europe (Springer, Dordrecht, 2008); Ginsburg, T, Judicial Review in New Democracies: Constitutional Courts in Asian Cases (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003); Gloppen, S, Gargarella, R and Skaar, E (eds), Democratization and the Judiciary: The Accountability Function of Courts in New Democracies (Frank Cass, London, 2004); Gloppen, S, Wilson, BM, Gargarella, R, Skaar, E and Kinander, M (eds), Courts and Power in Latin America and Africa (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, NY, 2010); and Helmke, G and Ríos-Figueroa, J (eds), Courts in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011). See also Maveety, N and Grosskopf, A, ‘“Constrained” Constitutional Courts as Conduits for Democratic Consolidation’ (2004) 38 Law & Society Review 463; Mietzner, M, ‘Political Conflict Resolution and Democratic Consolidation in Indonesia: The Role of the Constitutional Court’ (2010) 10 Journal of East Asian Studies 397; Walker, CJ, ‘Toward Democratic Consolidation: The Argentine Supreme Court, Judicial Independence, and the Rule of Law’ (2008) 4 High Court Quarterly Review 54; and Ginsburg, T, ‘The Politics of Courts in Democratization: Four Junctures in Asia’ in Kapiszewski, D, Silverstein, G and Kagan, RA (eds), Consequential Courts: Judicial Roles in Global Perspective (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013).

21 Landau, D, ‘Abusive Constitutionalism’ (2013) 47 UC Davis Law Review 189.

22 See generally the works cited at (n 20).

23 Grimm, D, ‘Constitutional Adjudication and Democracy’ in Fairgrieve, D (ed), Judicial Review in International Perspective vol. 2 (Kluwer Law International, The Hague, 2000) 142.

24 Stone (n 1) 827.

25 Stotzky, I, ‘The Tradition of Constitutional Adjudication’ in Stotzky (n 19) 349.

26 See Buyse, A and Hamilton, M (eds), Transitional Jurisprudence and the ECHR: Justice, Politics and Rights (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011), which includes analysis of the Inter-American Court; Sweeney (n 16); McCrudden, C and O’Leary, B, Courts & Consociations: Human Rights versus Power-Sharing (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013); and García-Sayán, D, ‘The Inter-American Court and Constitutionalism in Latin America’ (2011) 89 Texas Law Review 1835.

27 As a first step, the author provides a systematic account of the African Court’s first decade in a forthcoming working paper, ‘The Authority of the African Court on Human Rights at Ten: A Comparison of Progress, Power and Prospects’ (iCourts Working Paper Series, forthcoming, 2016).

28 Huneeus, A, ‘Reforming the State from Afar: Structural Reform Litigation at the Human Rights Courts’ (2015) 40(1) Yale Journal of International Law 1. See also Schönsteiner, J, Beltrán y Puga, A and Lovera, DA, ‘Reflections on the Human Rights Challenges of Consolidating Democracies: Recent Developments in the Inter-American System of Human Rights’ (2011) 11(2) Human Rights Law Review 362.

29 Buyse and Hamilton (n 26) 287.

30 The term is used by a variety of organisations, including the European Union and International IDEA.

31 However, recent scholarship challenges the place of mature Western democracies as the ultimate empirical referents for young democracies: see Lamont, CK, van der Harst, J and Gaenssmantel, F (eds), Non-Western Encounters with Democratization: Imagining Democracy after the Arab Spring (Ashgate, Farnham, 2015).

32 O’Donnell, G, ‘The Perpetual Crises of Democracy’ (2007) 18 Journal of Democracy 5, 6.

33 An alternative conceptual framework from the 1990s, aimed at examining ‘quality of democracy’, places much less emphasis on the temporal aspects of democratisation and has never quite supplanted the other two.

34 See e.g. Schmitter, P and Santiso, J, ‘Three Temporal Dimensions to the Consolidation of Democracy’ (1998) 19(1) International Political Science Review 69, 72, 77.

35 Huntington (n 2) 266.

36 Dahl, RA, On Democracy (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2000) 90–9.

37 See Ferrajoli, L, ‘The Normative Paradigm of Constitutional Democracy’ (2011) 17 Res Publica 355.

38 See e.g. Issacharoff, S, ‘Constitutional Courts and Democratic Hedging’ (2011) 99 Georgetown Law Journal 961, 967.

39 See Gargarella, R, Domingo, P and Roux, T (eds), Courts and Social Transformation in New Democracies: An Institutional Voice for the Poor? (Ashgate, Farnham, 2006).

40 See Vilhena Vieira, O, Viljoen, F and Baxi, U (eds), Transformative Constitutionalism: Comparing the Apex Courts of Brazil, India and South Africa (Pretoria University Law Press, Pretoria, 2013).

41 See Bell, C, Campbell, C and Ní Aoláin, F, ‘Transitional Justice: (Re)Conceptualising the Field’ (2007) 3(2) International Journal of Law in Context 81; and Sweeney (n 16).

42 See e.g. O’Donnell, K, ‘Thoughts on a New Ireland: Oral History and the Magdalene Laundries’ Human Rights in Ireland (22 August 2011) <>.

43 See e.g. Winter, S, Transitional Justice in Established Democracies (Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2014).

44 See e.g. Gloppen, Gargarella and Skaar (n 20).

45 See e.g. Oliver, D, ‘The United Kingdom Constitution in Transition: From Where to Where?’ in Andenas, M and Fairgrieve, D (eds), Tom Bingham and the Transformation of the Law: A Liber Amicorum (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009).

46 T Ginsburg, ‘The Politics of Courts’ (n 20).

47 Schneider, C, The Consolidation of Democracy: Comparing Europe and Latin America (Routledge, Abingdon, 2008) 10.

48 See Stone (n 1); and Ginsburg, T, ‘The Global Spread of Constitutional Review’ in Caldeira, A, Kelemen, RD and Whittington, KE (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Law and Politics (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008).

49 See in particular Lane Scheppele, K, ‘Democracy by Judiciary (Or Why Courts Can Sometimes Be More Democratic than Parliaments)’ in Sadurski, W, Krygier, M and Czarnota, A (eds), Rethinking the Rule of Law in Post-Communist Europe: Past Legacies, Institutional Innovations, and Constitutional Discourses (Central European University Press, Budapest, 2005).

50 See Sólyom, L, ‘The Rise and Decline of Constitutional Culture in Hungary’ in von Bogdandy, A and Sonnevend, P (eds), Constitutional Crisis in the European Constitutional Area: Theory, Law and Politics in Hungary and Romania (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2015) 8.

51 See Roux, T, The Politics of Principle: The First South African Constitutional Court, 1995–2005 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013).

52 See Cepeda-Espinosa, MJ, ‘Judicial Activism in a Violent Context: The Origin, Role, and Impact of the Colombian Constitutional Court’ (2004) 3 Washington University Global Studies Law Review 529.

53 This is not to overlook treatments of ‘peripheral’ courts, such as those of Tanzania, Bolivia and Taiwan, in, for instance, Gloppen et al., Courts and Power in Latin America and Africa (n 20); Gargarella et al., Courts and Social Transformation (n 39); and Ginsburg, Judicial Review in New Democracies (n 20).

54 See, in particular, Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala (1973) 4 SCC 225.

55 See Vilhena Vieira, Viljoen and Baxi (n 40).

56 See e.g. Ginsburg (n 20) 22ff.

57 See e.g. L Sólyom, ‘The Role of Constitutional Courts in the Transition to Democracy: With Special Reference to Hungary’ (2003) 18 International Sociology 133, 134.

58 Issacharoff, ‘Constitutional Courts and Democratic Hedging’ (n 38) 986.

59 Jackson, VC, ‘What’s in a Name? Reflections on Timing, Naming, and Constitution-Making’ (2006) 49 William & Mary Law Review 1249, 1265–8.

60 Kommers, DP, Constitutional Jurisprudence of the Federal Republic of Germany (1st edn, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1989) 292.

61 Ginsburg, ‘The Politics of Courts’ (n 20) 50.

62 Lach, K and Sadurski, W, ‘Constitutional Courts of Central and Eastern Europe: Between Adolescence and Maturity’ in Harding, A and Leyland, P (eds), Constitutional Courts: A Comparative Study (Wildy, Simmonds & Hill Publishing, London, 2009) 79.

63 Couso, J, ‘Models of Democracy and Models of Constitutionalism: The Case of Chile’s Constitutional Court, 1970–2010’ (2011) 89 Texas Law Review 1517, 1520.

64 Kapiszewski, Silverstein and Kagan, , Consequential Courts (n 20) 1.

65 See e.g. Waldron, J, ‘The Core of the Case Against Judicial Review’ (2006) 115 Yale Law Journal 1346, 1402.

66 See Sadurski’s works at (n 20).

67 Gargarella, R, ‘In Search of a Democratic Justice – What Courts Should Not Do: Argentina, 1983–2002’ in Gloppen, Gargarella and Skaar (n 20).

68 Issacharoff, ‘Constitutional Courts and Democratic Hedging’ (n 38).

69 See Bonilla Maldonado, D (ed), Constitutionalism of the Global South: The Activist Tribunals of India, South Africa, and Colombia (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013); and Vilhena Vieira, Viljoen and Baxi (n 40).

70 Scheppele (n 49).

71 Gardbaum, S, ‘Are Strong Constitutional Courts Always a Good Thing for New Democracies?’ (2015) 53 Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 285.

72 Issacharoff, ‘Constitutional Courts and Democratic Hedging’ (n 38).

73 See, regarding India and Germany: Dietrich, C, ‘Limitation of Amendment Procedures and the Constituent Power’ (1970) Indian Yearbook of International Affairs 375.

74 Issacharoff, Fragile Democracies (n 15) 241.

75 See Kahn, P, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2011) 2.

76 See Loughlin, M, ‘The concept of constituent power’ (2014) 13 European Journal of Political Theory 218, 225.

77 Ibid 233.

78 Kalb, J, ‘The Judicial Role in New Democracies: A Strategic Account of Comparative Citation’ (2013) 38 Yale Journal of International Law 423.

79 See e.g. Colón-Ríos, JI, ‘A New Typology of Judicial Review of Legislation’ (2014) 3 Global Constitutionalism 143, 145–6; and the Tanzanian High Court’s judgment in Mtikila v Attorney General, Civil Case No. 5 of 1993 (24 October 1994).

80 Roux, T, ‘The South African Constitutional Court’s Democratic Rights Jurisprudence: A Response to Samuel Issacharoff’ (2014) 5 Constitutional Court Review 33, 45.

81 See further, Daly, TG, ‘Baby Steps Away from the State: Regional Judicial Interaction as a Gauge of Postnational Order in South America and Europe’ (2014) 3(4) Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law 1011.

82 This is even true of the sub-regional East African Community (EAC), whose express finalité politique is a full political federation: see <>.

83 See e.g. D García-Sayán (n 26).

84 Tanganyika Law Society v Tanzania App 009/2011 and 011/2011 (14 June 2013); Zongo v Burkina Faso App 013/2011 (28 March 2014); Konaté v Burkina Faso App 004/2013 (5 December 2014); Thomas v Tanzania App 005/2013 (20 November 2015); Onyango v Tanzania App 006/2013 (18 March 2016); and Abubakari v Tanzania App 007/2013 (3 June 2016).

85 Krisch, N, Beyond Constitutionalism: The Pluralist Structure of Postnational Law (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010).

86 Góngora Mera, ME, Inter-American Judicial Constitutionalism: On the Constitutional Rank of Human Rights Treaties in Latin America through National and Inter-American Adjudication (Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, San José, Costa Rica, 2011) 169–98.

87 Waters, MA, ‘Creeping Monism: The Judicial Trend Toward Interpretive Incorporation of Human Rights Treaties’ (2007) 107 Columbia Law Review 628.

88 Indeed, Ariel Dulitzky is highly critical of the Inter-American Court’s ‘control of conventionality’ doctrine, which accords little room to domestic courts as potential co-interpreters of the American Convention on Human Rights: Dulitzky, A, ‘An Inter-American Constitutional Court? The Invention of the Conventionality Control by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ (2015) 50(1) Texas International Law Journal 45.

89 Stone Sweet, A, ‘On the Constitutionalisation of the Convention: The European Court of Human Rights as a Constitutional Court’ (2009) Yale Law School Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 71, 5.

90 Sweeney (n 16) chs 4–5.

91 Ibid ch 6, ch 8.

92 See Huls, N, Adams, M and Bomhoff, J (eds), The Legitimacy of Highest Courts’ Rulings: Judicial Deliberations and Beyond (TMC Asser Press, The Hague, 2009).

93 See Rainey, B, Wicks, E and Ovey, C (eds), Jacobs, White and Ovey: The European Convention on Human Rights (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014) 64; and Rask Madsen, M, ‘The Challenging Authority of the European Court of Human Rights: From Cold War Legal Diplomacy to the Brighton Declaration and Backlash’ (2016) 79(1) Law and Contemporary Problems 141, 172–3.

94 Krsticevic, V, ‘How Inter-American Human Rights Litigation Brings Free Speech to the Americas’ (1997) 4 Southwest Journal of Law & Trade in the Americas 209.

95 See e.g. García-Sayán (n 26) 105ff.

96 See González-Salzburg, DA, ‘Complying (Partially) with the Compulsory Judgments of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ in Fortes, P, Boratti, L, Palacios, A and Daly, TG (eds), Law and Policy in Latin America: Transforming Courts, Institutions, and Rights (Palgrave MacMillan, forthcoming).

97 See Huneeus (n 28); and TG Daly, ‘The End of Law’s Ambition: Human Rights Courts, Democratisation and Social Justice’ (2016) iCourts Working Paper Series No. 67.

98 See Windridge, O, ‘Guest Post: 2014 at The African Court on Human and Peoples Rights–a Year in Review’ Opinio Juris (10 January 2015) <>. See also Daly, ‘The Authority of the African Court’ (n 27).

99 See e.g. Bernardes, MN, ‘Inter-American Human Rights System as a Transnational Public Sphere: Legal and Political Aspects of the Implementation of International Decisions’ (2011) 15 SUR – International Journal on Human Rights 131.

100 See e.g. F Ní Aoláin, ‘Transitional Emergency Jurisprudence: Derogation and Transition’ in Buyse and Hamilton (n 26).

101 See e.g. García-Sayán (n 26) 1836–7, 1839.

102 D Gil, R Garcia and LM Friedman, ‘Media Representations of the Inter-American System of Human Rights’ in Fortes, Boratti, Palacios and Daly (n 96).

103 ‘African rights court unknown to many’, The Citizen, (23 August 2016) <>.

104 Buyse and Hamilton (n 26).

105 Bellamy, R, ‘The Democratic Legitimacy of Regional Human Rights Conventions: Political Constitutionalism and the Hirst case’ in Føllesdal, A, Peters, B, Karlsson, J Schaffer, and Ulfstein, G (eds), The Legitimacy of Regional Human Rights Regimes (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013).

106 Ibid 248.

107 Malarino, E, ‘Judicial Activism, Punitivism and Supranationalisation: Illiberal and Antidemocratic Tendencies of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ (2012) 12 International Criminal Law Review 665.

108 Ibid 686.

109 See e.g. Sweeney (n 16); and B Çalı, ‘Domestic Courts and the European Court of Human Rights: Towards Developing Standards of Weak International Judicial Review?’ Opinio Juris (11 January 2013) <>.

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).

111 See Dulitzky (n 88); and Huneeus (n 28). The fundamental transformation of an international treaty regime by its court has been explored in a more general manner in Arato, J, ‘Treaty Interpretation and Constitutional Transformation: Informal Change in International Organisations’ (2013) 38 Yale Journal of International Law 289.


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