Ezequiel Gonzalez Ocantos (Ph.D. Notre Dame, 2012) is Associate Professor in the Qualitative Study of Comparative Political Institutions in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow in Nuffield College. His research focuses on the determinants of judicial behavior in cases of state repression. In particular, he studies how the diffusion of international legal ideas by local activists changes the way judges and prosecutors in Latin America perceive these cases and the legal viability of ruling against impunity. His book manuscript “Shifting Legal Visions: Judicial Change and Human Rights Trials in Latin America” is currently under contract with Cambridge University Press. His work on this and other topics has appeared in the American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Politics and Comparative Political Studies. Gonzalez Ocantos received APSA’s 2013 Edward S. Corwin Award for the best doctoral dissertation in the field of Public Law.
In this talk I will present the main argument developed in my book manuscript “Shifting Legal Visions: Judicial Change and Human Rights Trials in Latin America,” currently under contract with Cambridge University Press. The book develops a sociological institutionalist theory of judicial decision making to explain the explosion of human rights prosecutions and trials in Latin America since 2000. The main theoretical postulate is that jurisprudential outcomes reflect the intitutionalisation inside the judicial branch of norms and standards of professional conduct, or what I call legal preferences. In order to understand judicial activism in cases of state repression we must explore how this legal cultural lens mediates the way judicial actors perceive the possibilities afforded by highly idiosyncratic suits. Human rights prosecutions require the use of innovative juridical doctrines derived from international human rights law and special investigative protocols to overcome evidentiary limitations and the obstacles posed by amnesties and the exhaustion of statutes of limitations. Judges and prosecutors socialised in formalist legal cultures, characteristic of Latin American judicial branches, faced enormous difficulties visualising viable paths to truth and justice. As a result, deeply engrained problem solving templates and bureaucratic routines, as well as a limited reservoir of legal knowledge had to change in order to observe prison sentences. The book develops a model of judicial change, which emphasises the role of strategic litigants as the conveyor belts of a new legal vision. In those cases where human rights NGOs count with professionalized teams of lawyers that allow them to understand the problem posed by traditional legal preferences, and deploy appropriate re-socialisation strategies, we observe successful outcomes. The book tests the argument against evidence collected in Argentina, Peru and Mexico, mainly interviews with judges and prosecutors, archival research in courts and NGOs, and content analysis of relevant rulings.