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The Law’s Majestic Equality? The Distributive Impact of Judicializing Social and Economic Rights

Abstract

While many find cause for optimism about the use of law and rights for progressive ends, the academic literature has long been skeptical that courts favor the poor. We show that, with the move toward a robust “new constitutionalism” of social and economic rights, the assumptions underlying the skepticism do not always hold. Our theories must account for variation in the elite bias of law and litigation. In particular, we need to pay closer attention to the broad, collective effects of legal mobilization, rather than focusing narrowly on the litigants and the direct benefits they receive. We support the claim by showing that litigation pursued in legal contexts that create the expectation of collective effects is more likely to avoid the potential anti-poor bias of courts. On the other hand, policy areas dominated by individual litigation and individualized effects are more likely to experience regressive outcomes. Using data on social and economic rights cases in four countries, we estimate the potential pro-poor impact of litigation by examining whether the poor are over- or under-represented among the beneficiaries of litigation. We find that the impact of courts is positive and very much pro-poor in India and South Africa, and slightly negative in Indonesia and Brazil. Overall, we challenge the tendency in the literature to focus on the direct effects of litigation, find that the results of litigation are more positive for the poor than the conventional wisdom would lead us to expect, and offer an explanation that accounts for part of the variation while raising a number of questions for future research.

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Perspectives on Politics
  • ISSN: 1537-5927
  • EISSN: 1541-0986
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