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Shifting Legal Visions
Judicial Change and Human Rights Trials in Latin America

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Part of Cambridge Studies in Law and Society

  • Date Published: August 2016
  • availability: Available
  • format: Hardback
  • isbn: 9781107145238

$ 122.00 (C)

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About the Authors
  • What explains the success of criminal prosecutions against former Latin American officials accused of human rights violations? Why did some judiciaries evolve from unresponsive bureaucracies into protectors of victim rights? Using a theory of judicial action inspired by sociological institutionalism, this book argues that this was the result of deep transformations in the legal preferences of judges and prosecutors. Judicial actors discarded long-standing positivist legal criteria, historically protective of conservative interests, and embraced doctrines grounded in international human rights law, which made possible innovative readings of constitutions and criminal codes. Litigants were responsible for this shift in legal visions by activating informal mechanisms of ideational change and providing the skills necessary to deal with complex and unusual cases. Through an in-depth exploration of the interactions between judges, prosecutors and human rights lawyers in three countries, the book asks how changing ideas about the law and standards of adjudication condition the exercise of judicial power.

    • Proposes a new explanation for variation in the success of human rights trials in Latin America, identifying as a key case previously overlooked processes of judicial change
    • Puts forward a sociological-institutionalist theory of judicial decision making
    • Engages in careful process-tracing of the impact of ideas on judicial behavior, featuring interviews and surveys of judicial actors, quantitative analysis of rulings, and archival evidence
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    • Winner, 2017 Donna Lee Van Cott Book Award, Latin American Studies Association

    Reviews & endorsements

    "Shifting Legal Visions is a fascinating analysis of how Latin American judges came to hold dictatorial torturers and murderers accountable after years of shielding them from justice. The driving force behind this profound conversion, Ezequiel González Ocantos demonstrates in this carefully designed and richly researched account, was the persistent, strategic effort of human-rights NGO's to teach judges new ways of thinking and ruling. This transformative, path-breaking book will be a must-read for scholars and human-rights organizers alike."
    Charles Epp, University of Kansas

    "Many transitions to democracy rest on a Faustian bargain with the outgoing repressive regime, formalized in a legal impunity regime. This book explores the work of the human rights activists and organizations that dismantled those impunity regimes in Latin America. They did so in large part, González Ocantos argues, by changing the way law was understood, educating supportive judges, and removing the intransigent ones. The argument contributes importantly to the literature on comparative judicial politics by paying attention to what is unique about law and courts, without losing sight of their political nature. González Ocantos brings theories of judicial behavior into conversation with broader institutionalist theories in comparative politics, to produce a deeper, richer theory of institutional change and judicial behavior. The book's focus on ideational as well as strategic motivations brings new understanding to an issue that has become central to the construction of democracy, and pushes forward our thinking about why judges do what they do, especially in the area of transitional justice."
    Daniel Brinks, University of Texas, Austin

    "… a fascinating comparative study of how Latin American judicial systems have reacted to the efforts of activists to pursue "strategic litigation" to bring to account those guilty of human-rights abuses. The author focuses on the role of "legal preferences". … With a sophisticated comparative research design and impressive documentary and interview-based evidence, the study accounts for variation across and within the cases of Argentina, Mexico, and Peru. The author emphasizes the diffusion of technical know-how and socialization to change norms and identifies in support of rights-based jurisprudence. At the same time, he recognizes the process as a fundamentally political one. Technical expertise about legal remedies from international law can prove inadequate in the face of intransigent judges supporting the old order, and politicians must be pressured to replace them. Identifying the conditions under which "replacement" supplements "persuasion" is one of many contributions of this fine book."
    Matthew Evangelista, Cornell University, New York

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    Product details

    • Date Published: August 2016
    • format: Hardback
    • isbn: 9781107145238
    • length: 342 pages
    • dimensions: 235 x 158 x 22 mm
    • weight: 0.63kg
    • contains: 14 b/w illus. 9 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. From unresponsive to responsive judiciaries
    2. Legal preferences and strategic litigation: a theory of judicial change
    3. Argentina: pedagogical interventions and replacement strategies in the struggle for human rights
    4. Peru: pedagogical interventions and human rights trials in unfriendly territory
    5. Mexico: an untamed judiciary and the failure of criminal prosecutions
    6. Comparative perspectives on the problem of legal preferences.

  • Author

    Ezequiel A. González-Ocantos, University of Oxford
    Ezequiel A. González-Ocantos is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, and Professorial Fellow of Nuffield College, at the University of Oxford. He received his B.A. in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge in 2005, and his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame in 2012. González-Ocantos won the American Political Science Association's Edward S. Corwin Award for the best doctoral dissertation in the field of public law. His work has appeared in the American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Politics, Comparative Political Studies, and The International Journal of Human Rights.


    • Winner, 2017 Donna Lee Van Cott Book Award, Latin American Studies Association
    • Winner, 2017 C. Herman Pritchett Award for Best Book, Law and Courts Section, American Political Science Association (APSA)
    • Winner, 2018 Best Book Award, Human Rights Section, International Studies Association

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