Courts’ Limited Ability to Protect Constitutional Rights
Constitutional scholars have generally put faith in courts’ ability to improve the protection of constitutional rights. While courts have limited means to enforce their own decisions, the literature suggests that their decisions are implemented either when courts enjoy strong legitimacy or when they bring functional benefits to other branches. In this Essay, we call this conventional wisdom into question. We present data suggesting that the existence of independent courts does not increase the probability that governments will respect constitutional rights. We outline four reasons why this might be so. First, courts that too frequently obstruct the political branches face court-curbing measures. Second, courts avoid high-profile clashes with the political branches by employing various avoidance canons or deferral techniques. Third, courts protect themselves by issuing decisions that are mostly in line with majoritarian preferences. Finally, courts are ill equipped to deal with certain types of rights violations like torture and social rights. All these accounts offer a potential explanation for why courts’ ability to enforce constitutional rights is more limited than is commonly believed.