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Constitutional courts and citizens’ perceptions of judicial systems in Europe


In recent decades, constitutional courts have become essential institutions in the political systems of many European countries. At the legal level, constitutional courts are designed as organs intended to protect and enforce the normative constitution. At the political level, they are also expected to play a role in the protection of democratic systems of government and human rights. However, the stability of a democracy does not only depend on efficient institutional designs, but also on acceptable levels of public support for democratic institutions. Using data from the European Social Survey, this article shows that constitutional courts have negative effects on public views of the court system in at least two dimensions: perceptions of judicial independence and perceptions of judicial fairness. These effects, however, decrease with the age of the democratic system. Given the core role that diffuse support for the judiciary plays in the stability of the rule of law in a country, our findings suggest that, paradoxically, constitutional courts might have detrimental effects to the very goal that justifies their existence: the protection of democratic systems of government.

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  1. Jost et al. (2007) found out that moderate ideology was associated with avoidance of uncertainty. Thus, those with a moderate ideological position would rather choose status quo against radical change of the system.

  2. Despite the ordinal distribution of the original variable, we decided to combine categories and create a binomial distribution.

  3. Description of the variables can be found in Appendix Table 4.

  4. Scores are calculated from the country experts’ answers to the following question: ‘When judges not on the high court are ruling in cases that are salient to the government, how often would you say that their decisions merely reflect government wishes regardless of their sincere view of the legal record?’.

  5. To know more about the methodology of the V-DEM Project and the details of relative scales as the one used here, see Coppedge et al. (2018: 29).

  6. A possible alternative would have been group-level regressions on country averages. The problem with using average individual factors is that we cannot predict individual outcomes. As an example, a median average of confidence in political institutions can be the result of a mostly moderately satisfied citizenship or the consequence of very polarized positions towards them.

  7. The low number of cases at the superior level and the multicollinearity of constitutional courts, age of democracy and legal system discouraged us to include a model in which all three contextual variables were included at the same time.

  8. See empty models in Appendix Tables 5 and 6.

  9. See models without the oldest democracies in Tables 7 and 8 in Appendix.


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We want to thank Graham Gee and Martin Gross for valuable comments on a previous version of this manuscript. All mistakes and omissions remain the sole responsibility of the authors.

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Correspondence to Pablo Castillo-Ortiz.

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See Tables 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Table 4 Descriptive statistics
Table 5 Empty model and model with individual predictors only for ‘Justice not influenced by politics’
Table 6 Empty model and model with individual predictors only for ‘Fairness of Justice’
Table 7 Logistic multilevel models for ‘Justice not influenced by politics’ removing the countries with 100 years of democracy
Table 8 Linear multilevel models for ‘Fairness of Justice’ removing the countries with 100 years of democracy

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Navarrete, R.M., Castillo-Ortiz, P. Constitutional courts and citizens’ perceptions of judicial systems in Europe. Comp Eur Polit 18, 128–150 (2020).

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  • Constitutional courts
  • Constitutional review
  • Judicial politics
  • Trust in institutions