Strategies of repression vary widely between extrajudicial and judicial extremes, from unrestrained acts of violence to highly routinized legal procedures. While the former have received a great deal of scholarly attention, judicial methods remain relatively understudied. When and why do rulers repress their rivals in court? The author argues that autocrats use a judicial strategy of repression when confronting challengers from within the ruling elite. Unlike regime outsiders, who pose a common, external threat to mobilize against, insiders present a more divisive target. When autocrats confront the latter, a judicial strategy legitimizes punishment, deters future rivals, and generates shared beliefs regarding incumbent strength and challenger weakness. Using original data on political prisoners in postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa, the author finds that autocrats were significantly more likely to use a judicial strategy against insiders and an extrajudicial strategy against outsiders. A case study of Kenya traces the logic of the theory, showing how intraregime conflict made courts a valuable instrument of state repression. The findings demonstrate how courts can play a central role in autocratic survival.
"Ethnic Bias in Criminal Sentencing: Evidence from Kenya" with Danny Choi (Pittsburgh)and Andy Harris (NYU-AD) Winner of the Fiona McGillivray Award (2020) for Best Political Economy paper at the American Political Science Association Invited to Revise and Resubmit at American Political Science Review
Understanding sources of judicial bias is essential for establishing due process. Yet, theories of judicial decision-making are largely rooted in advanced democracies. To address this gap, this paper examines sources of judicial bias in Kenya, an emerging democracy where ethnicity is understood to play a critical role in shaping sociopolitical outcomes. Using original data from nearly 10,000 criminal appeals from the Kenyan high courts, we exploit the conditional random assignment of judges to estimate the effect of judge-defendant coethnicity on appeal decisions. We find that judges are 3~5% points more likely to grant the appeal of a coethnic defendant compared to a non-coethnic's. To understand mechanisms, we use text-as-data approaches to analyze the sentiment of written judgments. Our analysis reveals that judges use more favorable terms---pertaining to trust---when adjudicating the fate of coethnics, which we interpret as evidence of an in-group favoritism rather than an out-group derogation mechanism.
"Framing the International Criminal Court: Tracking Sentiment in African News Media" with Risa Kitagawa (Northeastern) Available upon request
In recent years, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has faced harsh and growing criticism in non-Western countries for its perceived bias against leaders of the Global South. This is particularly the case in Africa, where popular narratives of ICC proceedings are often framed as illegitimate, unfair, and unjust. But where do such perceptions come from, especially among everyday people who have little direct contact with bodies of international justice? This paper seeks to examine these trends by turning towards a vital yet underexplored source of information about the ICC among the general population: local news media. Drawing on an original web-scraped corpus of over 142,000 new articles from African countries, we leverage novel text-as-data approaches to track the extent to which the ICC is framed by local media as a legitimate or illegitimate institution of justice. Using a word embeddings approach, we find preliminary evidence that local coverage of the ICC is indeed politicized, but this framing varies over time. In particular, the ICC is framed as more partisan and less fair around sensitive election periods, suggestive of elites’ strategic attacks on the international body to score political points at home. We further explore how ICC activities can shift popular sentiment for or against the Court. The study speaks to the challenges of legitimizing international judicial institutions among local populations. Our findings also underscore how local news coverage provides insight into popular satisfaction or discontent with international justice institutions.
"Perceptions of Courts in Africa" with Risa Kitagawa (Northeastern)
“Combating Corruption in African Countries: Foreign Creditors and Domestic Institutions”with Leonardo Arriola (UC, Berkeley) Although many governments have adopted measures to investigate and prosecute malfeasance by public officials, there remains considerable cross-national variation in institutional responses to high-level corruption. Under what conditions have governments established anti-corruption agencies? What impact have such agencies had on the prevalence of corruption? In addressing such questions, we argue that the origin of anti-corruption agencies ultimately undermined their purpose in African countries. Because governments established agencies to address the concerns of foreign creditors, principally multilateral institutions and Western donors, these agencies have been largely detached from domestic constituencies that might have otherwise demanded results. Moreover, since anti-corruption agencies are tangential to the primary interests of multilateral institutions, they have had little incentive to consistently ensure that agencies fulfill their mandates in practice. We assess these claims by analyzing original cross-national time-series data. Our findings show that anti-corruption agencies were established more rapidly in countries with greater debt service obligations, regardless of domestic political or economic conditions. We further show that anti-corruption agencies have had a negative effect on corruption: perceived levels have grown faster in countries that established agencies early on to satisfy foreign creditors.
"Regional Responses to Human Rights Violations" with Leonardo Arriola (UC, Berkeley) and David Dow (Duke) Do regional human rights frameworks make African states more or less responsive to human rights violations in member countries? In partnership with Amnesty International, we examined the extent to which African regional institutions, anchored by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), have responded to human rights violations in conflict-afflicted countries across the continent. Using natural language processing techniques on a web-scraped corpus of official documents issued by the PSC and ACHPR describing the output of their meetings and summarizing their main platforms and agendas, we analyzed whether the PSC and ACHPR have fulfilled their institutional mandates to actively protect and intervene on behalf of human rights, or have instead espousing empty rhetoric. Our preliminary findings were included in the 2017 Amnesty International Report, "Africa: Counting Gains, Filling Gaps: Strengthening African Union’s Response to Human Rights Violations Committed in Conflict Situations."
"Authoritarian Legacies in Post-Authoritarian Courts: Evaluating Judicial Performance in Developing Contexts" Courts in developing countries often fail to live up to democratic ideals. This is not merely a problem of limited resources, financing, or mismanagement. Rather, in many cases these institutions were specifically designed to entrench authoritarian power and have continued to operate according to their original purpose. But if rule of law was never the intended goal in these contexts, how should judicial performance be evaluated? What alternatives to democratic criteria can be used to evaluate authoritarian courts? Existing concepts emphasize democratic notions of law and justice and are typically measured by formal provisions (e.g. constitutions or laws) or opinion data (elite and household surveys). In this paper, I propose focusing on dimensions of judicial performance that are rooted in the authoritarian experience: specifically the scope of judicial authority. Scope refers to a court’s sphere of action, both its jurisdiction in law and its workload in practice. I argue that by focusing on matters of scope, we gain greater insight into how courts actually spend their time and their role in regulating political affairs. I consider different approaches for measuring this dimension of judicial authority, including constitutional provisions and the media.
Selected Works in Progress
"The Political Logic of Judicial Appointments in Sub-Saharan Africa" with Danny Choi (UPenn)
"Politics of Courts Under Colonialism: Evidence from Colonial Korea 1910-1945" with ShinHye Choi (UC, Berkeley)
"Autocratic Constitutionalism in sub-Saharan Africa" with Siri Gloppen (University of Bergen)