How Latin America’s Judges Are Defending Democracy

Issue Date January 2024
Volume 35
Issue 1
Page Numbers 118–133
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Ten years of debates over democratic backsliding have failed to produce many examples of independent institutions thwarting authoritarian attempts on democracy. Yet Latin American courts seem to be countering this larger trend. The three largest countries in the region—Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia—have produced robust institutions able to check leaders with authoritarian tendencies, with high courts playing a fundamental role. In a dramatic succession of recent cases, courts in these three countries have been innovative, acted with a high degree of independence, and appear legitimately interested in defending democratic norms. All of this is profoundly surprising. There is little to no track record of independent Latin American judiciaries that stand in the way of authoritarian governments. Closer study of these three countries is therefore critical for scholars and practitioners, who are otherwise locked in debates over the importance of judicial review in preserving democracy. After dozens of judicial reform failures since the 1990s, we may be observing some overdue success. It appears that 1990s judicial reforms are making a comeback in Latin America.

About the Authors

Diego A. Zambrano

Diego A. Zambrano is associate professor of law at Stanford Law School.

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Ludmilla Martins da Silva

Ludmilla Martins da Silva is a Brazilian attorney pursuing her Doctor of the Science of Law degree at Stanford Law School.

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Rolando Garcia Miron

Rolando Garcia Miron is currently a Doctor of the Science of Law candidate at Stanford Law School.

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Santiago P. Rodriguez

Santiago P. Rodriguez is currently clerking for Justice Natalia Ángel Cabo of the Colombian Constitutional Court.

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