Can courts save democracy?

A shot of the front exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., with a cherry blossom tree in the foreground.

American political sociologist Larry Diamond has observed that the world is "suffering a democratic contraction."

From Vladimir Putin's sharp restriction of freedom in Russia, the rise of authoritarian regimes and the intensification of populism, to the fragility of many existing democracies across Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, Diamond, former director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, suggests that making fledgling democracies work has often proven more difficult than it was to tear down authoritarian rule early in the 21st century. The disruption of democratic norms in the United States after the 2020 election is also unnerving, given that American institutions have served as a beacon of democratic principles and practice worldwide.

If liberal democracy is losing ground in countries around the globe, to which institutions can we look to defend democratic principles and practices? In particular, can we expect independent judiciaries to serve as bulwarks for democracy? This is the question Jeffrey Staton, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Politics at Emory University, raises in his book "Can Courts be Bulwarks of Democracy?"

On Nov. 1, the Center for Constitutional Design at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law will partner with the Phoenix Committee on Foreign Relations to host a meaningful discussion about the role of the courts in upholding democratic institutions and the rule of law. Staton will discuss the findings in his book and engage with Diamond (Stanford University), Tom Daley (University of Melbourne and director of the global online platform Democratic Delay and Renewal) and Center for Constitutional Design Executive Director and ASU Foundation Professor Stefanie Lindquist on the question of what the role of the courts is and should be in preserving democracy.

"Liberal democracy relies on the impartial rule of law to ensure justice's stable and fair administration. We have looked to the courts in the United States to provide a check on democratic or majoritarian excesses but also to check tyrannical or concentrated authority in the executive and legislative branches," Lindquist said. "But it is also important to discuss how the courts should restrain themselves from interfering in political life to maintain their legitimacy and efficacy."

The conversation will explore how the courts at home in the United States and across the world might hold the line in sustaining democratic practice by checking leadership violations of legal norms and encouraging them to explain their actions to the public under the rule of law.

Registration for the event is open for in-person-only attendance at the Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix.

The Center for Constitutional Design is part of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at ASU.

Written by Carol McNamara, senior director, Center for Constitutional Design, 435-512-6168

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