Courts, Law and Politics
Autumn - irregular
Objectives and Content
This course aims to provide students with an understanding of the role of courts and judges in contemporary politics. The role of courts as political actors and arenas for political battles has increased significantly in the past decades, across geographical regions as well as policy areas. This has raised a range of controversies: Is it undemocratic to give more powers to the courts? Does it lead to government that is more accountable and respect for citizen's rights? - Or are we moving towards a "juristocracy" where "politicians in robes" decide cases based on their own ideology? Who benefits from the increased judicialisation of politics? The course introduces the students to the central scholarly debates around the political role of courts, judicial behavior and judicial politics, and draws empirical examples from all regions of the world.
The course is divided into three parts. In the first part, we focus on the political role of the judiciary in democratic societies, introducing students to the normative and theoretical discussions on the proper role of courts as well as to comparative perspectives on how this plays out in practice in different - more or less democratic - contexts. The aim is to encourage and enable students to reflect on the role of legal institutions in a democracy and on the boundaries between the legal domain and the political domain.
The second part of the course focuses on the study of judicial behavior and judicial independence. What are the factors that in actual practice influence how judges decide cases? Does it matter who appointed them? Where they were educated? Whether they are women or men? And how can we know? These debates have been particularly important in the US, and students will be introduced to key scholarly works in this field, but in this part of the course, the main empirical focus will be on the Norwegian Supreme Court.
This part of the course also aims to introduce students to the debates on what is required for courts to fulfil their role as an independent arbiter of disputes and a check on the use (and potential misuse) of power? There is a rich literature on what judicial independence requires and the course will discuss key factors that influence how well judges are insulated from undue influence from other political actors as well as private interests; how we can know whether or not judges act independently; and what it takes for judges to not only be independent, but also have authority vis-à-vis other power holders so that their decisions "stick" and are complied with and implemented. In addition to discussing the theoretical literature, students will also be introduced to how judicial independence is institutionalized and functions (or not) in different parts of the world.
The last part of the course focuses on courts as a political arena, and how, in many parts of the world, social groups and interests increasingly use the courts as an arena for advancing their political aims (a trend often referred to as judicialisation of politics). The aim of this part of the course is to provide insights into how these processes play out in different parts of the world - among other in the form of legal mobilization by social movements; the use of courts in electoral politics; and the blocking of reforms by corporate interests - and to discuss whether, when and why this constitutes a democratic problem.
A student who has completed the course should have the following learning outcomes defined in terms of knowledge, skills and general competence:
- demonstrate knowledge of the central concepts in the literature on the role of courts and law in contemporary societies (such as judicialization of politics: politicization of courts; judicial independence; judicial behavior; judicial activism; legal mobilization; accountability functions of courts; constitutionalism; human rights and rule of law)
- explain different perspectives in the normative and empirical research on the role of law and courts, including on judicial independence, -behavior, and -mobilization and account for the main differences between the positions
- Identify issues in contemporary debates that relate to the issues discussed in the course, and analyze and reflect on them in light of the concepts and theories in the literature.
- Identify and analyze how and why courts function differently between countries and regions and over time, and what the effects are on society.
- Identify and reflect upon how law and courts both shape society and the way politics play out, and themselves are shaped by the social context in which they function and the prevailing power-structures.
- Critically relate concepts and perspectives on the role of courts and law to new situations, statements and developments, and engage in debates with others on implications, solutions and recommendations
Required Previous Knowledge
Access to the Course
Teaching and learning methods
Lectures, group work
- Hours per week: approximately 2
- Number of weeks: minimum 10
Compulsory Assignments and Attendance
Presentation and discussion of group work
Forms of Assessment
- Take home exam, 10 hours (2/3 of the grade)
- Group work with submission of a research note of maximum 3000 words and a video/podcast recording of maximum ten minutes (1/3 of the grade)
Assessment in teaching semester
The course is evaluated regularly