Introduction to Symposium on Transplanting International Courts: The Law and Politics of the Andean Tribunal of Justice

by Karen Alter and Larry Helfer

[Karen J. Alter is a Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University and a Permanent Visiting Professor at iCourtsLaurence R. Helfer is the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law at Duke University, and Permanent Visiting Professor at iCourts.]

This Opinio Juris blog engages our findings about the Andean Tribunal of Justice, published in our book Transplanting International Courts: The Law and Politics of the Andean Tribunal of Justice (Oxford University Press, 2017). Our book is a deep exploration of a fairly obscure international court, which is illuminating because of the Andean Tribunal’s relative success and longevity despite the many challenges presented by the unstable political context in which it operates. We draw on the Andean experience to reflect on what we thought we knew about how international courts become effective and influential legal and political actors.

In 1979, Andean political leaders added an international court—the Andean Tribunal of Justice (ATJ or Tribunal)—to their struggling regional integration project to help improve respect for Andean legal rules. They turned for inspiration to the highly successful European Court of Justice (ECJ), copying that court’s design features and legal doctrines. Transplanting International Courts investigates the results of this decision, providing a deep, systematic study of the most active and successful of eleven regional courts modeled on the ECJ.

Our book investigates the ATJ’s evolution and impact using a wide range of empirical evidence. We coded every preliminary ruling from the Tribunal’s founding through 2014, reviewed noncompliance cases, analyzed the ATJ’s legal doctrines, interviewed more than forty stakeholders during five trips to the region, traced the professional backgrounds of Andean legal entrepreneurs, investigated legal networks, used process tracing to isolate the influence of key ATJ decisions, and compared the development of the ATJ and ECJ over a quarter century to understand how contextual factors shape judicial decision-making.

One of the book’s central findings is that the ATJ is effective by any plausible definition of the term, but primarily within the domain of intellectual property (IP) law—what we refer to as an “island of effective international adjudication.” The overwhelming majority of the ATJ preliminary rulings—more than 90%—relate to trademarks, patents, and other forms of IP. These rulings have shaped decision-making by domestic agencies, national judges, and private litigants. The Tribunal’s noncompliance judgments have also induced national governments to reverse domestic laws and policies that violate Andean IP rules.

The ATJ’s influence is more limited outside of the IP island, but when compared to other ECJ transplants, Andean judges have made a significant mark. The ATJ is the only ECJ transplant where all four types of legal procedures—preliminary ruling, noncompliance, omission, and nullification—have been utilized. By the end of 2014, the Tribunal had issued 114 preliminary rulings on regional legislation regulating tariffs, customs valuations, taxes, insurance, and agriculture; the Andean Secretariat and private litigants regularly raise noncompliance complaints concerning these and other non-IP issues; and states and private actors challenge the actions and omissions of Andean officials.

Unlike the ECJ, however, the ATJ is not an expansionist judicial lawmaker. The Tribunal lets the member states set the pace and scope of Andean integration and allows for the coexistence of national legislation and supranational authority, yet it does not shy away from condemning clear violations of Andean rules. This circumspect and formalist approach has enabled the ATJ to retain its fidelity to Andean law while building relationships with national administrative agencies, courts, and lawyers. But this approach also means that, unlike in Europe, Community law is not an engine of regional integration.

Transplanting International Courts updates and consolidates our decade-long study of the ATJ and the Andean legal system, allowing us to focus on the recent period of political turmoil in the Andes, as leftist-populist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador entrenched their power and challenged the Andean Community’s liberal free trade policies. Two of the book’s chapters investigate how the ATJ has dealt with fraught political controversies that divide the priorities and objectives of the member countries. Chapter 6, The Judicialization of Andean Politics: Cigarettes, Alcohol and Economic Hard Times, traces state and private litigation across multiple Andean legal procedures to reveal how the ATJ navigates these contentious cases and responds to the reality of its real but limited power. Chapter 7, The Authority of the Andean Tribunal of Justice in a Time of Regional Political Crisis, explains how, despite major regional turbulence—a term used by Ernst Haas to explain where European integration tends to falter—the ATJ’s caseload doubled, its IP rule of law island remained resilient, the Tribunal expanded its legal doctrines, and Ecuador’s populist President Correa modified his protectionist trade and monetary policies in response to ATJ litigation (while also working to subsume the Andean Community within a less legalized continent-wide integration regime (UNASUR)). These two chapters offer lessons for other international judges who seek to build a rule of law within inhospitable political environments.

Our in-depth exploration of the law and politics of the Andean legal system also provides an opportunity to revisit our earlier scholarship investigating the ECJ and the European Court of Human Rights. Chapter 9 expands upon Karen Alter’s previous work demonstrating that the ECJ benefitted in underappreciated ways from the support of jurist advocacy movements—movements that are absent or poorly organized in the Andes and elsewhere in the world. The book’s conclusion revisits Toward a Theory of Effective Supranational Adjudication, the influential 1997 article by Larry Helfer and Anne-Marie Slaughter, to consider the limited influence of international judges when backlash remains an endemic concern.

The longevity of the Andean Tribunal of Justice, despite the many challenges it has faced, offers useful guidance for other international courts in developing-country contexts. Moreover, given that the Andean Community and its institutions have weathered member state withdrawals, threats of exit, major economic and political crises, and the retrenchment of foundational laws and policies, the Andean experience also offers timely and important lessons for the challenges that Europe’s older and more established supranational institutions now confront.

We have invited four eminent scholars and jurists to comment on our book and its findings.

  • Alexandra Huneeus, Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has written extensively on the influence of regional and international courts within Latin America. Reflecting on the role of the Inter-American Court of Justice, which operates in the same region as the ATJ, Huneeus reconsiders on our metrics for international court success and influence.
  • James Gathii, the Wing-Tat Lee Chair in International Law at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, is an expert on international economic law and on regional courts in Africa. Drawing on insights discussed TWAIL scholarship, Gathii also asks readers to think about the metrics for assessing international court success. Gathii brings into the conversation rulings by the East African Court of Justice, another international court operating in a developing country context. Gathii argues that scholars should not import Eurocentric assumptions, and thereby assume that mimicking European courts and achieving compliance are the measures of IC effectiveness or success.
  • Mark Pollack, Professor of Political Science and Law and Jean Monnet Chair at Temple University, is an expert on European legal and political integration. Pollack reflects on the political science project of studying international courts, and in particular our “liberal” approach to conceptualizing international court influence. Pollack extracts, yet questions, three generalizable lessons that one can make based on our examination of the ATJ.
  • Luis José Diez Canseco Núñez served as a judge on the Andean Tribunal from 2014-2017, and he features in our analysis of the role of jurist advocacy movements. He engages our work as a practitioner, discussing how the ATJ looks from his perspective.

We thank our contributors, whose prodding pushes all of us to move beyond current modes of conceptualizing and assessing the influence of international courts operating around the world. We learned a lot, and expect that opinio juris readers will as well, from the thoughtful reflections of our esteemed colleagues, who are complementary yet also quite critical of the approach and arguments we advance in this book. For us, this project was a way to move beyond our Eurocentrism. Huneeus, Gathii, Pollack and Núñez remind us that, given how Eurocentric the predominant theories are, we all have a way to go.

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