The Judiciary and Democratic Decay in Latin America: Declining Confidence in the Rule of Law

The Judiciary and Democratic Decay in Latin America: Declining Confidence in the Rule of Law

The Judiciary and Democratic Decay in Latin America: Declining Confidence in the Rule of Law

The Judiciary and Democratic Decay in Latin America: Declining Confidence in the Rule of Law

Synopsis

Prillaman fills a significant gap in the literature on democratic consolidation and challenges the conventional wisdom about Latin American judicial reform. He has developed a coherent list of indicators to monitor whether judiciaries are improving or decaying over time, applied that framework to contemporary case studies, and concluded that prospects for democracy are bleaker than traditionally assumed.

Excerpt

El Salvador is perhaps the clearest test case of the merits of a narrow approach to judicial reform. Amidst the context of an ongoing civil war, judicial reformers in the early 1980s began with what would have seemed like an ideal approach: a clear set of goals, coherent plans for how to achieve them, and an abundance of international financial and technical support for their efforts. Reformers sought two well-defined objectives: to increase the individual independence of judges hearing sensitive human rights cases and to overcome the chronic inefficiency of the courts. Similarly, their reform inputs to achieve these ends were explicitly laid out from the beginning: judicial protection units would ensure the physical safety of judges, a special investigative unit would be trained in state-of-the-art techniques that would strengthen the hands of judges investigating sensitive cases, a legal revisory panel led by an elite group of judicial officials would update and modernize El Salvador's antiquated legal codes, and a training program for judicial personnel would improve professionalism and efficiency. the logic was thought to be mutually reinforcing and would lead to clear outputs: judges protected from threats of violence and empowered with modern, scientific investigative techniques could end the impunity of the security forces and establish the courts as an independent branch of government, while the application of modern criminal codes would give increased prominence to legal rather than political considerations, gradually leading to greater independence for the judiciary as a whole. Reformers were not oblivious to the larger political context of an ongoing civil war--hence the explicit recognition of the need to protect judges from political violence--but believed that a successful judicial reform could actually overcome those constraints and help create the conditions that would lead to an end to the war itself, advancing the democratic process.

The case study of El Salvador raises several interesting practical and theoretical questions about a narrowly defined approach to judicial reform. At the most basic level, did the reforms result in more judicial independence and efficiency? Is it possi-

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