Political Frames and Legal Activity: The Case of Nuclear Power in Four Countries

By Boyle, Elizabeth Heger | Law & Society Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Political Frames and Legal Activity: The Case of Nuclear Power in Four Countries


Boyle, Elizabeth Heger, Law & Society Review


State-society differentiation and political centralization interact to influence the amount, focus, and effect of legal activity. Using case studies of antinuclear power litigation in the 1970s in the United States, West Germany, France, and Sweden, this article develops a general theory of political systems and legal activity. While the United States, West Germany, and France all had considerable amounts of antinuclear litigation, in France and Germany such litigation was directed almost exclusively at the state. In the United States, the targets of antinuclear litigation were much more diffuse. Centralized Sweden with its corporatist political system had significantly less antinuclear legal activitv than the other three countries, which were roughly comparable. Germany was the only country in which the state took an active role in shaping the content of legal cases, and it was the only country where litigation became a critical factor in modifying national policy. Through these case studies, this article explores how contextual factors such as the political frames of nation-states, which exist apart from individual litigiousness and even apart from legal systems themselves may create particular cross-cultural variations in patterns of legal activity.

he amount, character, and impact of legal activity generted bv the issue of nuclear tower in the United States West Germany, France, and Sweden provides evidence of a link between political structure and legal activity. This suggests that contextual factors existing apart from individual litigiousness and even apart from legal systems themselves create particular crosscultural variations in patterns of legal activity, even in countries where legal systems are extensively incorporated into society.l In this research, I provide an explanation for cross-national variation in legal activity based on two aspects of countries' "political frames": the degree of (a) state-society differentiation and (b) political centralization. I focus on the empirical case of antinuclear power litigation in the 1970s in the United States, France, Sweden, and West Germany. By highlighting political distinctions within these nation-states, my goal is to illuminate how aspects of political structure interact with legal systems to affect social change and to shape the actions of individuals in the legal sphere.

Although the four nation-states have important differences, in the 1970s, their nuclear power programs were very similar. The issue of nuclear power became controversial in each of them when the energy crisis brought to the fore the animosity between the burgeoning environmental movement and the scientific community (Price 1990:9, 20-25).2 The four states all had strong commitments to nuclear power, and their proposed nuclear programs were comparable in size-one to two gigawatts of nuclear electricity generation per million population (Kitschelt 1984:61). Further, in each of the four nation-states, nuclear energy production was linked to nationalist sentiments regarding technological advancements and economic independence (Joppke 1993:32; Jasper 1990:68-69; Nelkin & Pollak 1981:21). In all four countries the issue of nuclear power was resolved by 1980. Despite these similarities, the character and effect of antinuclear legal activity differed a great deal across the nation-states.

Three of these differences in legal activity are notable.3 Certainly the amount of legal activity is one issue to consider (Lieberman 1983; Markesinis 1990; Munger 1988; Friedman 1989; Olson 1991). The United States, West Germany, and France all had fairly high levels of antinuclear power litigation in the 1970s; Sweden had almost none (see Price 1990; Nelkin & Pollak 1981:155; Sahr 1985).

State centrality in legal activity also varied.4 While American antinuclear litigation challenged many different public and private targets, in West Germany, France, and Sweden, the state licensing agency was the focus of nearly all litigation (Price 1990; Nelkin & Pollak 1981:155, app. …

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