University at Albany

Matt Ingram at the New York State Writers Institute, University at Albany

Q & A

Rockefeller College Assistant Professor of Political Science Matthew Ingram is the author of Crafting Courts in New Democracies: The Politics of Subnational Judicial Reform in Brazil and Mexico. Dr. Ingram’s research examines justice sector reforms, judicial behavior, and violence in Latin America.

What is the focus of your book?

The book examines the political sources of judicial reform at the local level in Mexico and Brazil. It looks at what kinds of political forces shape courts and legal institutions in these two countries.

Why were you interested in this topic?

I was concerned about human rights issues in Latin America and how courts and other legal institutions could be strengthened to offer more protection to basic human rights. I was also concerned about high levels of crime and insecurity. I have family in Mexico and return there quite frequently.

What distinguishes your book from other books on judicial reform?

The book emphasizes what I call the causal role of ideas, that is, ideas are really a driving force behind human behavior. In this particular case, they are a driving force behind political behavior for or against justice reforms. There’s fairly strong existing scholarship that emphasizes that the principal driving force of political behavior, including judicial reform, is a kind of cost-benefit calculation based on material incentives. That might be true, but our understanding of court reform is at best incomplete if we don’t also address the ideas — non-material motivations — that are motivating court reform. Both institutional insiders — judges — and institutional outsiders — politicians — are motivated by things other than material cost-benefit calculations. It might be a commitment to human rights principles or a commitment to improving their country or improving their home institution. I repeatedly found evidence of these kinds of principled commitments that drove political and judicial actors to change or to work toward changing the courts in their states. For instance, there was a very active judge in the reform movement in one state in Brazil who persisted in trying to change very corrupt arrangements among the judicial leadership in his state despite the fact that he and his family had been threatened. He was trying to expose the misuse of funds by the senior judges, many of whom had private cars, drivers, and guards at their homes paid for by the budget for the courts, and was pushing, in part, to have these funds dedicated to improve conditions in local courts. He arrived to work one day to find a map had been left under his office door tracing the route his kids took to school every day. That was a very clear signal to him to stop pushing for change or something was going to happen to his family. And yet he persisted. That’s one dramatic instance of what in the book I call costly behavior — a demonstrated willingness to accept material risks or costs, even very high ones, for the sake of promoting a more just legal system. This kind of behavior is very puzzling for social scientists who emphasize the importance of material interests, yet an emphasis on the causal role of ideas helps us understand why such behavior occurs, and therefore why justice reform takes place where and when it does. The other thing that distinguishes the book is its focus on local courts. There’s a large and still exploding literature on high or constitutional courts, like the U.S. Supreme Court, Mexican Supreme Court, Brazilian Supreme Court, or the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany. Yet, these courts decide a relatively small percentage of the total number of cases in any one country. In Mexico for example, 90 percent of the litigation that reaches the courts is dealt with at the state level. Same thing in Brazil — 80-90 percent of all litigation is handled by local courts. And yet these local courts are largely neglected; they operate in a kind of blind spot for academics and policy analysts.

Did you come away feeling positive about the reform that was underway?

Things are improving, but for every reform, for every step forward, and every movement that’s pushing an institution in a positive direction, there’s almost an equal force pushing in the opposite direction. That is, for every reform, there is a counter reform. That realization is sobering. I spent close to two years in the field in Mexico and Brazil and interviewed more than one hundred judges, lawyers, and politicians, including several governors and multiple senior judges on state supreme courts. Everywhere that I saw some seed of positive reform that would benefit the judiciary, there was at least one other effort to keep things in place, not disrupt the status quo, or to push things back even further than they were before. That was a bit dispiriting on a personal level, but then when I put on my academic hat I found this process very interesting. As a friend in Mexico says, “In variation there is hope.” What she means by this is that when things are always the same there is very little to explain. Uniformity is not interesting. So, the unevenness of the reform process is very interesting and almost calls out to be explained. What explains the forces that shape the reform movement and the counter reform movement? How can we best explain which one succeeds at a given place or time? So, the very bumpiness or unevenness of reform inspires more research questions.

What is your next project?

I have a few new projects underway, but a couple are closely related to the book. One of the questions I keep getting when I present material related to the book is, if ideas are so important, then where do these ideas come from? In the research for the book, I found some evidence that judges were learning about new ideas from each other. So, one of the new directions that I’m headed is to leverage the tools of network analysis to try to explain where these key ideas of judges about the law and legal institutions come from. To do this, I have been surveying judges in Mexico, and recently expanded to Colombia and Chile, and to try to make a systematic effort to document the attitudes and ideas that judges hold about a wide range of legal issues and then use network analysis to explain to what extent the professional ties among judges explain the variations in their spread of similar attitudes among groups of judges. The notion of diffusion is intriguing to me more broadly, and it also appears in another new project that examines violence at the local level throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. I started that project on violence with a primary interest in understanding crime and insecurity in Mexico, but Latin America and the Caribbean also have the highest homicide rates in the world, so there is a serious need to understand how to prevent and reduce violence. The project has rapidly expanded from Mexico to Central America and Brazil, with a general interest in understanding the sources of violence, and to what extent the process that gives rise to violence in one place also leads to violence in nearby places.

All of these projects — the book and newer projects — are motivated by my desire to help understand how to create societies that are more just, democratic, and peaceful. I hope to work with students at Rockefeller College, and UAlbany more generally, who are interested in any of these topics: law and politics, network analysis, spatial analysis, diffusion, or justice, and democracy.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 Rockefeller College News Magazine.