When a constitutional court faces opposition from other branches of government or significant segments of the public, should it always hold fast to what it considers constitutionally right, even where this would potentially harm its status and perceived legitimacy? Or are constitutional compromises sometimes justified? Such ‘institutionally hard’ cases – those characterised by a sharp tension between constitutional principle and institutional prudence – pose a true dilemma for constitutionalism. This article advances a realistic, yet principled, liberal-constitutional approach to this dilemma, put forth in the vein of Rawlsian non-ideal theory. It addresses a troubling gap between, on the one hand, the idealising discourse of constitutional theory – which overlooks or downplays the actual social and political pressures that courts must confront – and, on the other, a growing political science literature which, in the name of ‘realism’, views judges solely as strategic actors, leaving no role for principled reasoning. What has stepped into the gap in normative theory is a vague notion of ‘judicial statesmanship’, which praises or criticises judges post hoc, on an intuitive basis, without any tangible prescriptive bite. Developing evaluative and prescriptive guidelines for institutionally-hard cases, a non-ideal theory of constitutional adjudication should construct principles that both reinforce the commitment to ideal constitutional principle, and properly situate constitutional courts within the real – contingent and often very non-ideal – social and political contexts in which they operate.