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The Limits of Judicial Independence: A Model with Illustration from Venezuela under Chávez


This paper presents a heuristic model of judicial independence that illustrates how it is that changes in de facto judicial independence may occur, even in the absence of overt institutional changes in de jure protections. The model is illustrated by the marked decline in the independence of Venezuela's high court between 1998 and 2010, under President Hugo Chávez. Focusing on the trade-off that courts face between jurisprudential change and policy change, the paper demonstrates how courts – even those that closely mirror the executive branch's policy preferences – may enter into conflict with dominant executives, and find their judicial independence restricted by informal means.

Spanish abstract

Este artículo presenta un modelo heurístico de la independencia judicial que ilustra cómo es que cambios en la independencia judicial de facto se pueden dar, incluso ante la ausencia de cambios en las protecciones de jure. El modelo se hace evidente en el marcado declive en la independencia de la corte suprema de Venezuela entre 1998 y 2010, bajo la presidencia de Hugo Chávez. Centrándose en el equilíbrio que las cortes necesitan mantener entre el cambio jurisprudencial y el cambio político, el artículo demuestra cómo que las cortes – incluso aquellas que reflejan cercanamente las preferencias políticas de la rama ejecutiva – pueden entrar en conflicto con los ejecutivos dominantes, y encontrar restringida su independencia judicial por medios informales.

Portuguese abstract

Este artigo apresenta um modelo heurístico da independência judicial que demonstra como mudanças de facto na independência judicial podem ocorrer, mesmo sem evidentes mudanças institucionais nas proteções de jure. O modelo é ilustrado pela clara redução da independência do Supremo Tribunal venezuelano entre 1998 e 2010, durante o governo de Hugo Chávez. Tendo como foco o equilíbrio que os tribunais procuram manter, entre mudanças da jurisprudência e mudanças nas diretrizes das políticas públicas, o artigo demonstra como tribunais – até mesmo aqueles que estão próximos às preferências políticas do Executivo – podem entrar em conflito com membros dominantes do Executivo e ter sua independência judicial restringida por meios informais.

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1 Representative works include Domingo Pilar, ‘Judicial Independence: The Politics of the Supreme Court in Mexico’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 32: 3 (2000), pp. 705–35; Larkins Christopher M., ‘Judicial Independence and Democratization: A Theoretical and Conceptual Analysis’, American Journal of Comparative Law, 44: 4 (1996), pp. 605–26; and Prillaman William C., The Judiciary and Democratic Decay in Latin America: Declining Confidence in the Rule of Law (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000).

2 See, for example, Helmke Gretchen, Courts under Constraints: Judges, Generals, and Presidents in Argentina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Kapiszewski Diana, ‘Tactical Balancing: High Court Decision Making on Politically Crucial Cases’, Law & Society Review, 45: 2 (2011), pp. 471506; and High Courts and Economic Governance in Argentina and Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

3 William Barndt, ‘Executive Assaults in South America (1979–2006)’, unpubl. PhD diss., Princeton University, 2008. On institutional crises, see Helmke Gretchen, ‘The Origins of Institutional Crises in Latin America’, American Journal of Political Science, 54: 3 (2010), pp. 737–50; and Pérez-Liñán Aníbal, ‘Pugna de poderes y crisis de gobernabilidad: hacia un nuevo presidencialismo?’, Latin American Research Review, 38: 3 (2003), pp. 149–64.

4 Valenzuela Arturo, ‘Latin American Presidencies Interrupted’, Journal of Democracy, 15: 4 (2004), pp. 519.

5 Mainwaring Scott, ‘From Representative Democracy to Participatory Competitive Authoritarianism: Hugo Chávez and Venezuelan Politics’, Perspectives on Politics, 10: 4 (2012), pp. 955–67.

6 Petkoff Teodoro, ‘Elections and Political Power: Challenges for the Opposition’, ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America (autumn 2008), pp. 1113.

7 Kornblith Miriam, ‘Venezuela: calidad de las elecciones y calidad de la democracia’, América Latina Hoy, 45 (2007), pp. 109–24; Corrales Javier, ‘A Setback for Chávez’, Journal of Democracy, 22: 1 (2011), pp. 122–36; Corrales Javier and Penfold Michael, Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chávez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2011), p. 2; Mainwaring, ‘From Representative Democracy’, p. 955.

8 Ellner Steve, ‘Hugo Chávez's First Decade in Office: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings’, Latin American Perspectives, 37: 1 (2010), pp. 7796; Spanakos Anthony Peter, ‘Citizen Chávez: The State, Social Movements, and Publics’, Latin American Perspectives, 38: 1 (2011), pp. 1427.

9 Mainwaring, ‘From Representative Democracy’, p. 961.

10 Watch Human Rights, A Decade under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela (Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 2008), pp. 36–7.

11 Fiorina Morris, ‘Formal Models in Political Science’, American Journal of Political Science, 19: 1 (1975), pp. 137–9.

12 Tiede Lydia Brashear, ‘Judicial Independence: Often Cited, Rarely Understood’, Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, 15 (2006), p. 152.

13 Shapiro Martin, Courts: A Comparative and Political Analysis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 34.

14 Following McNollgast's example, the high court and the executive are modelled here as single anthropomorphic rational actors rather than collectivities that are ‘subject to the various pathologies of majority rule institutions’. The model assumes that the court follows the median justice's preferences, although this simplifying assumption could be relaxed with no effect. McNollgast, ‘Politics and the Courts: A Positive Theory of Judicial Doctrine and the Rule of Law’, Southern California Law Review, 68 (1995), p. 1637.

15 Dahl Robert A., ‘Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-Maker’, Journal of Public Law, 6 (1957), pp. 279–95.

16 Landes William and Posner Richard, ‘The Independent Judiciary in an Interest-Group Perspective’, Journal of Law and Economics, 18: 3 (1975), pp. 875901; Whittington Keith, ‘“Interpose Your Friendly Hand”: Political Supports for the Exercise of Judicial Review by the United States Supreme Court’, American Political Science Review, 99: 4 (2005), pp. 583–96.

17 Baum Lawrence, Judges and Their Audiences: A Perspective on Judicial Behavior (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

18 Kapiszewski Diana and Taylor Matthew, ‘Doing Courts Justice? Studying Judicial Politics in Latin America’, Perspectives on Politics, 6: 4 (2008), pp. 741–67.

19 Courts here are assumed to favour less jurisprudential change per unit of policy change than the executive, but this need not be the case. Even when the court's preferences invert this assumption, the logic of the model remains the same – that is, the key issue that determines de facto independence is the difference between the slopes of the two branches’ preferences, not the slopes themselves.

20 Keck Thomas M., ‘Party, Policy, or Duty: Why Does the Supreme Court Invalidate Federal Statutes?’, American Political Science Review, 101: 2 (2007), p. 323; Whittington Keith E., ‘Once More Unto the Breach: Post-Behavioralist Approaches to Judicial Politics’, Law & Social Inquiry, 25 (spring 2000), pp. 601–32.

21 There is no inherent reason to assume that the preference functions or the cost of override functions are linear, and in fact, one might suppose that both players are likely to trade less jurisprudential change for each additional unit of policy change as they move away from (pe, J*). Limitations of space force me to ignore these possibilities here.

22 De facto independence stands in contrast to de jure independence, or what might be termed parchment protections. Feld and Voigt offer measures of de jure and de facto independence that illustrate how empirical measures of the two types of independence can differ significantly: see Feld Lars and Voigt Stefan, ‘Economic Growth and Judicial Independence: Cross Country Evidence Using a New Set of Indicators’, European Journal of Political Economy, 19 (2003), pp. 497527.

23 This model is inspired by a model of central bank independence developed in Eijffinger Sylvester C. W. and Hoeberichts Marco, ‘Central Bank Accountability and Transparency: Theory and Some Evidence’, International Finance, 5: 1 (2002), pp. 7396.

24 The triggers for executive reaction need not be restricted to particular cases. Indeed, a series of decisions in separate cases may trigger a response, as in Roosevelt's response to a series of court cases threatening New Deal legislation. Even more nebulously, the executive may react simply to the perception that the court may someday rule against its preferences.

25 Epstein Lee, Knight Jack and Shvetsova Olga, ‘The Role of Constitutional Courts in the Establishment and Maintenance of Democratic Systems of Government’, Law and Society Review, 35: 1 (2001), pp. 117–64.

26 Because the model shows the preferences of only two actors, the perspectives of other actors like the legislature are assumed to be endogenous to the costs of override.

27 It should be noted that the two players’ ideal points are not shown in Figures 1 or 2. The model simply assumes that the ideal points lie somewhere on the respective preference function.

28 Domingo Pilar, ‘Rule of Law, Citizenship, and Access to Justice in Mexico’, Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 15: 1 (1999), pp. 151–91.

29 Domingo, ‘Judicial Independence’.

30 Toma Eugenia F., ‘A Contractual Model of the Voting Behavior of the Supreme Court: The Role of the Chief Justice’, International Review of Law and Economics, 16: 4 (1996), pp. 433–48.

31 Tiede, ‘Judicial Independence’.

32 As Ferejohn notes, ‘the low frequency of impeachment [in the United States] should not be seen as evidence of the security of constitutional protection, because this may be due as much to judges’ reluctance to make politically controversial decisions as to any display of congressional virtue’. Ferejohn John, ‘Independent Judges, Dependent Judiciary’, Southern California Law Review, 72 (1999), p. 358.

33 Such an exercise need not necessarily affect the independence of the Supreme Court (although in the case of the Judiciary Act's repeal, the court was adjourned for 14 months in any regard), but the ability to undertake such an effort implies relatively low costs of override.

34 Marshall Thomas, Public Opinion and the Supreme Court (New York: Unwin Hyman, 1989), p. 97.

35 Mishler William and Sheehan Reginald, ‘The Supreme Court as a Countermajoritarian Institution? The Impact of Public Opinion on Supreme Court Decisions’, American Political Science Review, 87: 1 (1993), pp. 87101.

36 Caldeira Gregory, ‘Public Opinion and the U. S. Supreme Court: FDR's Court-Packing Plan’, American Political Science Review, 81: 4 (1987), pp. 1139–53.

37 For example, Chavez Rebecca Bill, Rule of Law in Nascent Democracies: Judicial Politics in Argentina (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

38 Finkel Jodi, Judicial Reform as Political Insurance: Argentina, Peru and Mexico in the 1990s (Notre Dame, IL: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008); Ginsburg Tom, Judicial Review in New Democracies: Constitutional Courts in Asian Cases (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

39 Landes and Posner, ‘The Independent Judiciary’.

40 Ramseyer J. Mark, ‘The Puzzling (In)Dependence of Courts: A Comparative Approach’, Journal of Legal Studies, 23 (1994), pp. 721–47; Domingo, ‘Judicial Independence’.

41 Staton Jeffrey, Judicial Power and Strategic Communication in Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); ‘Judicial Policy Implementation in Mexico City and Mérida’, Comparative Politics, 37 (2004), pp. 41–60.

42 Shapiro, Courts, p. 124.

43 McNollgast, ‘Conditions for Judicial Independence’, Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues, 15 (2006), p. 110.

44 Gibson James and Caldeira Gregory, ‘Defenders of Democracy? Legitimacy, Popular Acceptance, and the South African Constitutional Court’, Journal of Politics, 65: 1 (2003), p. 2.

45 Shapiro, Courts.

46 Diana Kapiszewski and Matthew M. Taylor, ‘Compliance: Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Explaining Adherence to Judicial Rulings’, Law & Social Inquiry, 38: 4 (2013), pp. 803–35.

47 Pereira Anthony, Political (In)Justice: Authoritarianism and the Rule of Law in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), pp. 8, 1213.

48 McNollgast, ‘Conditions for Judicial Independence’, p. 125.

49 As, for example, in Iaryczower Matías, Spiller Pablo T. and Tommasi Mariano, ‘Judicial Independence in Unstable Environments, Argentina 1935–1998’, American Journal of Political Science, 46: 4 (2002), p. 699; and Domingo, ‘Judicial Independence’, p. 731.

50 Similar preference curves could imply either that the court was willing to tolerate greater change to the law in exchange for achieving its policy objectives (for example, if the slope of court preferences rises as the court moves closer to the executive), or that the executive was less willing to tolerate such changes to the law (for example, if the slope of executive preferences decreases as it moves closer to the court).

51 This was not the first change in the Supreme Court's size; there had been seven successful changes in the size of the court since 1789.

52 Caldeira, ‘Public Opinion and the U. S. Supreme Court’, p. 1150.

53 Taylor Matthew M., Judging Policy: Courts and Policy Reform in Democratic Brazil (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

54 Helmke, ‘The Origins of Institutional Crises’, p. 742 n. 9.

55 Smith Jean Edward, ‘Stretching Executive Power in Wartime’, New York Times, 27 May 2007.

56 Kapiszewski, High Courts and Economic Governance.

57 Peretti Terri, ‘A Normative Appraisal of Social Scientific Knowledge Regarding Judicial Independence’, Ohio State Law Journal, 64 (2003), p. 349.

58 McCoy Jennifer, ‘Demystifying Venezuela's Hugo Chávez’, Current History (Feb. 2000), pp. 6671.

59 Corrales and Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics, p. 18.

60 Daniel Levine, ‘The Logic of Bolivarian Democracy in Venezuela: Domestic and International Connections’, paper presented at the American Political Science Association, Boston, MA, Aug. 2008, p. 7; Watch Human Rights, Rigging the Rule of Law: Judicial Independence under Siege in Venezuela (Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 2004), p. 8.

61 ‘High Court Chief Quits’, New York Times, 25 Aug. 1999.

62 Levine, ‘The Logic of Bolivarian Democracy’, p. 8.

63 Sanchez Urribarri Raul A., ‘Courts between Democracy and Hybrid Authoritarianism: Evidence from the Venezuelan Supreme Court’, Law & Social Inquiry, 36: 4 (2011), pp. 862–5.

64 Rohter Larry, ‘Court Orders Venezuela to Postpone Election on Sunday’, New York Times, May 26, 2000.

65 Urribarri, ‘Courts between Democracy’, p. 869.

66 Forero Juan, ‘Venezuela Supreme Court Clears 4 Military Officers in Uprising’, New York Times, 15 Aug. 2002.

67 Human Rights Watch, Rigging the Rule of Law, pp. 15–16.

68 There are six chambers in the Venezuelan Supreme Court, including the sala electoral and the sala constitucional.

69 Marquis Christopher and Forero Juan, ‘A Bitter Chávez Castigates U. S., Saying It Misjudges Him’, New York Times, 18 March 2004; Human Rights Watch, A Decade under Chávez, p. 45. On the dispute between the electoral and constitutional chambers of the court, see Urribarri, p. 871, citing Brewer-Carías Allan, La sala constitucional vs el estado democrático de derecho (Caracas: El Nacional, 2004).

70 Human Rights Watch, Rigging the Rule of Law, p. 18.

71 Urribarri, ‘Courts between Democracy’, p. 872.

72 Technically, the nomination was voted on three times under a two-thirds majority rule. By the rules, since a super-majority was not achieved in the first three votes, the nominee could be approved by simple majority in a fourth vote.

73 In practice this suspension could be virtually permanent, given the ‘habitual disregard’ for voting deadlines in the National Assembly. See Human Rights Watch, A Decade under Chávez, p. 47.

74 Ibid., p. 48.

75 Lower courts were also severely constrained and lower court judges were subject to blatant harassment, most notably in the case of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who was arrested in 2009 after her decision to free a Chávez opponent. International Bar Association, ‘A desconfiança na justiça: o caso Afiuni e a Independência do Judiciário na Venezuela’, report by Institute for Human Rights delegation, 8–11 Feb. 2011.

76 Corrales and Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics, p. 27.

77 Ibid., p. 35. General Baduel was convicted on charges of corruption in April 2009.

78 Romero Simon, ‘Chavez Decree Tightens Hold on Intelligence’, New York Times, 3 June 2008.

79 Petkoff, ‘Elections and Political Power’, p. 11.

80 Corrales argues that Chávez preserved this façade because ‘the government has been smart enough to realize that a blatant turn to full autocracy would produce unwanted international condemnation’: see Corrales, ‘A Setback for Chávez’, p. 127.

81 Urribarri, ‘Courts between Democracy’, pp. 877–8.

82 Julio Ríos-Figueroa and Jeffrey Staton, ‘An Evaluation of Cross-National Measures of Judicial Independence’, Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 30: 1 (2014), pp. 104–37.

83 Witold Henisz, ‘The Political Constraint Index Database’, 2010, available at; David Cingranelli and David Richards, ‘CIRI Human Rights Data Project’, 2010, available at

84 Helmke, ‘The Origins of Institutional Crises’, p. 742 n. 9.

85 Kapiszewski, High Courts and Economic Governance, pp. 155–91.

* I wish to thank Linn Hammergren, Matthew Ingram, Diana Kapiszewski, Fernando Limongi, Marcus André Melo, Julio Ríos-Figueroa, Jeff Staton, Lydia Tiede, Álvaro de Vita, the audiences at APSA, the Fundação Getulio Vargas and the University of São Paulo, and the anonymous reviewers, who offered extremely helpful suggestions. Those listed do not necessarily agree with the arguments made herein, nor are they to blame for any remaining shortcomings.

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