Judicial Reshuffles and Women Justices in Latin America 

The forthcoming article “Judicial Reshuffles and Women Justices in Latin America” by Ignacio Arana Araya, Melanie M. Hughes and Aníbal Pérez‐Liñán is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Judicial Reshuffles and Women Justices in Latin America

Can weak institutions facilitate access of excluded groups into positions of power? Weak institutions arguably have negative consequences for developing countries, but a research stream has linked institutional disruptions to women’s advancement to positions of power. We inquire into the relationship between de-institutionalization and gender equality by analyzing political reshuffles of the judiciary in Latin America.  

Judicial reshuffles are episodes in which a majority of justices in the Supreme Court or Constitutional Tribunal are forced to leave office. Latin America presents wide variation regarding judicial purges, and the number of women justices has increased dramatically, going up from 3% of all justices in high courts in 1980 to 19% in 2010. 

Gender equality can improve the quality of legal decisions by increasing the diversity of ideas, values, and legal styles. Women jurists are more likely to make decisions that promote gender equality, and may decide differently across cases. Their presence also brings institutional legitimacy to courts. At the same time, women justices can only exercise power if courts are independent. 

We argue that institutional disruptions facilitate the appointment of women justices, but only when left parties control the nomination process. Leftist governments have stronger motivations to diversify the courts than other administrations at least for two reasons. First, judicial reshuffles give leftist parties an opportunity to prove their ideological commitment to gender equality. Second, left governments may appoint women justices for strategic reasons. The appointment of women allows leftist governments to bring legitimacy to a power grab, enables them to control the narrative, and diverts attention from their efforts to limit the independence of the judiciary.  

We test this argument using difference-in-differences and dynamic panel models for Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in 18 Latin American countries between 1961 and 2014. The analysis offers support for our hypothesis, but gains in gender diversification are modest in size and hard to sustain over time. Political reshuffles may produce short-term advances for women in the judiciary, but do not represent a path to substantive progress in gender equality. 

Our findings connect to four bodies of literature. First, by showing that institutional disruptions may benefit women jurists, we have extended prior arguments about the gendered effects of institutional disruption. Second, our study connects to research that has assessed the role of leftist political parties in promoting womenThird, we contribute to the scholarship that has unveiled how anti-democratic forces nominally advance women’s rights and representation to distract from democratic failures. Finally, our study relates to the nascent literature on weak institutions showing that, under certain conditions, they facilitate the entrance of new players into power. However, institutional weakness may also undermine these gains over the long run. In the absence of deeper social transformations, women’s gains in the higher courts may be limited and hard to sustain. Therefore, there is still work to do to identify the circumstances in which the advancement of women justices reflects a progression that is likely to hold over time. 

About the Author(s): Ignacio Arana Araya is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, Melanie M. Hughes is a Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh and Aníbal Pérez‐Liñán is a Professor of Political Science and Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame. Their research “Judicial Reshuffles and Women Justices in Latin America” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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