With the increasing empirical relevance of courts and litigation described under the well-known labels of judicialisation and legalisation, judicial behaviour has increasingly come under the focus of social science research (see Chapter 2). In this regard, the relationship between litigant configurations and the content of court rulings has become an area of particular scholarly interest.
From a strict legalistic perspective, litigant configurations should not be an importantSeeAlsoSeeAlsolegal model influence on judicial decisions. Instead, decisions should be based on the legal merits of the case, not on the question of who presents the case. Consequently, any observed covariance between litigant configurations and legal outcomes should be purely coincidental. From this perspective, any aggregate-level variation of legal success might simply be the product of chance, untouched by the structural characteristics of member state litigants and their strategic interactions with the Court. Instead, what matters is the plain meaning of the legal texts, the intention with which the legal texts were written, existing case law, and precedents that determine judicial decisions (Segal and Spaeth 2002, 48). While court decisions can have political consequences and litigation, as we have also argued throughout this book, can be politically motivated, rulings as such are apolitical decisions; for the legitimacy of court decisions, a lot depends on whether the decisions are perceived as politically neutral. Regarding the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), it thus comes as no surprise that legalist approaches deny ‘the existence of ideological and socio-political influences on the Court’s jurisdiction’ (Burley and Mattli 1993, 45). From this perspective, any pro-integration bias of the Court results directly from treaty asymmetries (Scharpf 2002, 2007), and CJEU case law might reflect the ‘inevitable working out of the correct implications of the constitutional text’ (Shapiro 1980, 538).
Such legalistic conceptions have been heavily criticized by proponents of an attitudinal model of judicial decision making. This attitudinal model proposes that legalistic considerations ‘serve only to rationalize the Court’s decisions and to cloak the reality of the Court’s decision-making process’ (Segal and Spaeth 2002, 53). Rulings do not emerge automatically from existing law. No matter which legal method of interpretation one uses, rulings are always based on interpretations of the law. This process of the interpretation of more-or-less (un-)clear words, phrases, situations, and potential precedents adds the attitudes and ideological predispositions of judges to the equation (Segal and Spaeth 2002, 86–97; for the CJEU, see Höpner 2011; Vauchez 2012). Based on this understanding of judicial decision making, potential litigants—and researchers, for that matter—try to predict court decisions based on the ideological predispositions of judges. For the CJEU, this has proved particularly difficult because of the non-transparent decision-making process of the Court, where positions of individual judges cannot be identified. Abstracting from the attitudes of individual judges, researchers have assumed the Court to be generally very favourable of European integration. Otherwise, the argument goes, the Court’s drive towards legal integration could not be explained. While this reasoning is hard to reject, recent attempts to open the black box of CJEU decision making have revealed that CJEU judges do not necessarily have uniform preferences regarding the development of the European Union (EU)’s body of law (Malecki 2012).
A third prominent theoretical perspective on judicial decision making is commonly summarized under the label of strategic approaches to judicial decision making. While this perspective does not deny that judges might hold relevant policy-related and institutional preferences, it emphasizes that judges are hardly able to act freely on those preferences. Instead, judges are constrained by the anticipated reactions to their rulings. As a result, decisions reflect strategic interactions between judges, within courts, between the court and the litigant, and between courts and public opinion (Segal and Spaeth 2002, 100).
In the EU context, this perspective supports intergovernmentalist accounts of European integration. As such, intergovernmentalist scholars have emphasized the strategic relationship between the CJEU and member state governments. Garrett et al. (1998) provide a formalized and strategic model of theSeeAlsoSeeAlsostrategic model relationship between member state governments and the CJEU in which the authors claim that the Court is a strategic actor that works to protect its institutional authority (Garrett et al. 1998, 174). This authority rests on both the perception of the Court’s impartiality and integrity and on its ability to adopt rulings that are not overruled by subsequent legislation and are obeyed. More recently, Larsson and Naurin (2016) have demonstrated a strong correlation between the CJEU’s rulings and the political signals it receives from member states. Ultimately, in both studies, the authors argue that CJEU decisions reflect strategic assessment (Garrett et al. 1998; Larsson and Naurin 2016).
In contrast to this strategic approach to judicial behaviour, the general litigation literature coined by US scholars has highlighted other reasons for which certain actors will be more successful in court than others. In this literature, the question about who has success in court has been on the research agenda since the 1980s. Concerning litigant groups, the evidence is quite clear-cut. Governments and public actors come out first, followed by businesses and other organized interests, while individualsSeeAlsoSeeAlsoorganized interests only reach the lowest success rates in comparison with the other groups (Farole 1999). Usually, litigant success is associated with arguments about judicial constraint or litigants’ capacity. In a comparative study of social activists’ ability to succeed in court, Epp (1998) emphasizes economic resources available to the claimant as the most important support factor (for similar results on EU preliminary rulings, see Tridimas and Tridimas 2004). This purely economic factor partly overlaps with Galanter’s (1974, 97; similar McGuire 1995; Haire et al. 1999) prominent repeat-player argument. Accordingly, resource rich claimants can afford to appear in court regularly and thereby gain the experience necessary to increase their chance of success in court. The relevance of capacity is also emphasized by studies analysing governmental litigation in the context of the World Trade Organization’s system of dispute resolution. Only governments with a high degree of executive effectiveness are found to be able to navigate the complex procedures, learn effectively from experience, and keep up with the constantly changing body of case law (Kim 2008; Davis and Bermeo 2009).
Authors that consider ideological closeness to the Court as the more relevant strategic factor oppose such arguments, which stress (economic) characteristics of claimants. In a much cited study on federal or state courts in the United States, Sheehan et al. (1992) find that across different litigant groups, the ideological complexion of courts was more important to explain success than other factors. More recently, Skiple et al. (2016) also found substantial explanatory power of Supreme Court judges’ ideological orientation—via appointment mechanisms—to matter for outcomes on economic conflicts.
At a more general level, judicial constraints can systematically affect litigant success. Studies along this line adopt a principal-agent perspective and assess whether national governments are able to effectively constrain the CJEU, which tries to avoid non-compliance and legislative overriding of its rulings. From this perspective, active participation in judicial proceedings by more powerful member states is likely to constrain the Court in its rulings because threats of legislative override and non-compliance with rulings from that side are more credible (Garrett and Weingast 1993; Carrubba et al. 2008). Given that more powerful states are seen to be less susceptible to the reputational costs resulting from non-compliant behaviour, the probability of winning, that is the probability with which the European Court of Justice should be found to agree with the litigant government, increases with this government’s degree of political power.
With regard to multiple litigants, it has been argued that a threat of legislative override is reduced where member states appear to be divided over the legal question. In the EU context, which regularly demands high degrees of consensus or even unanimity in the Council, voting jointly becomes less likely in such cases. Whether or not there is empirical support for these theoretical propositions remains heatedly debated, however (Carrubba et al. 2008, 2012; Stone Sweet and Brunell 2012).
But the ratchet effect created by the arithmetics of decision making in the Council is not the only aspect heatedly discussed within this controversy. Some authors claim that the model is based on a misconception of the CJEU as an agent of the member states when it should really be considered to be a trustee (Stone Sweet and Brunell 2013). The trustee role, the argument goes, is distinctly different from the role of an agent and is characterized by three different aspects, ‘(1) the court is recognized as the authoritative interpreter of the regime’s law, which it applies to resolve disputes concerning state compliance; (2) the court’s jurisdiction, with regard to state compliance, is compulsory; and (3) it is virtually impossible, in practice, for contracting states to reverse the court’s important rulings on treaty law’ (Stone Sweet and Brunell 2013, 62). As trustee, the Court’s decisions would rather reflect a logic of majoritarian activism. This means that it tries to produce rulings that reflect standard practices in many member states and are characterized by a high level of state consensus (Stone Sweet and Brunell 2013). This brief literature review can hardly do justice to the vast existing and emerging literature on the CJEU, let alone on judicial behaviour. Nevertheless, it hopefully serves to highlight that there is a controversial debate over the ability of powerful political actors to influence judicial decision making. While legalistic, attitudinal, and neo-functional approaches to CJEU decision making refute this claim, adherents of the strategic model argue that litigant configurations are an important influence on judicial behaviour. Accordingly, strategic modelsSeeAlsoSeeAlsostrategic approach of court behaviour argue that when many powerful member states support a specific legal argument, the Court becomes more inclined to follow this argument than when many powerful member state governments oppose this particular argument. Therefore, the threat of member state non-compliance or legislative override is conceptualized with the help of member state’s political power and the number of member states supporting or opposing particular arguments. This approach yields so called net-weighted observations (Carrubba et al. 2008, 2012), which basically counts the number of legal observations of member state governments on either side of the legal argument and weights this number by the political power of the respective member state. Neo-functionalist accounts have heavily criticized this approach (e.g. Burley and Mattli 1993). Neo-functionalist accounts of European integration through law argue that the CJEU has—with the help of private litigants—promoted European integration well beyond the preferences of member state governments. Most importantly, the critique against strategic models of the CJEU emphasizes that because of the high number of member states and the heterogeneity of their preferences, any sort of threat of legislative override is hardly ever credible. Therefore, this threat should not be measured on a continuous scale. Only when the vast majority of member states were clearly opposed to a particular legal interpretation would this threat be credible. In all other cases, the threat would be absent (Stone Sweet and Brunell 2012).