Constitutional Courts as Mediators: Armed Conflict, Civil-Military Relations, and the Rule of Law in Latin America

By Mattos, Karina Denari G. | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Courts as Mediators: Armed Conflict, Civil-Military Relations, and the Rule of Law in Latin America


Mattos, Karina Denari G., Law & Society Review


Constitutional Courts as Mediators: Armed Conflict, Civil-Military Relations, and the Rule of Law in Latin America. By Julio Ríos-Figueroa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Comparative constitutional law is a vibrant field of study, especially in Latin America. The confluence of democratization and major economic reforms following the demise of authoritarian regimes (in the 1980s and early 1990s) generated a nearly consensual belief that the 1990s were an era of great hopes regarding civil liberties, political stability, and wealth distribution in the region.

Almost three decades later, it seems that such optimistic prediction was not entirely fulfilled. Even if a wave of constitutional changes inscribed transformative socioeconomic rights in many countries' legal orders (the "new Latin American constitutionalism" of Colombia 1991, Venezuela 1999, Ecuador 2008, and Bolivia 2009), political stability, and economic growth remained somewhat fragile.

The recurrent crises of presidential systems and an unprecedented flood of impeachments swept Latin America in the 1990s: in just over a decade, six presidents faced and impeachment process and four of them were removed from office (Pérez-Liñán 2007). The frequent and widespread mobilization of the impeachment mechanism challenged many of the dominant views among political scientists, reopening important questions in the literature about Latin American democracies, both on structure and functioning.

The new institutional balance that is perceived in Latin America involves the understanding of the role of an important political and strategic actor: Constitutional Courts. Performing an increasingly active position in several of the most politically sensitive national issues, the courts emerge as neutral and reliable instances aimed to protect democratic regimes. For this reason, traditional framings and the mere reproduction of the common sense about judiciary competences are becoming outdated.

What lessons can be drawn from these experiences? Do these phenomena corroborate the narratives that emphasize the institutional fragility of Latin American democracies? Despite the discussion around its causes, what does political fragmentation and constitutional changes imply for practical functioning of institutions?

Ríos-Figueroa departs from this context to create a bold and compelling perspective on the structure, democratic position and strategic behavior of Courts. Combining a stimulating narrative and both qualitative and quantitative methods, Constitutional Courts as Mediators articulates a strong thesis about the role played by constitutional courts as democratic mediators, particularly in dealing with often tense civil-military relations. Focusing on how the accessibility to constitutional justice conditions the production of mediator-like jurisprudence, Rios-Figueroa demonstrates an impressive command of a range of complex content: conflict resolution, judicial politics, and comparative constitutional law.

Rios-Figueroa argues that to the extent that constitutional courts are (1) highly accessible, (2) have ample powers of judicial review, and (3) are independent, they are more likely to obtain and credibly transmit relevant information, in a way that helps them address the underlying informational causes of their conflict (24). …

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