American Influence on Foreign Law on the Wane

Today’s New York Times article about the declining influence of American jurisprudence on the rest of the world isn’t about torture or official cruelty per se, but it is a good example of the unintended consequences of abandoning our global leadership on human rights.

Judges around the world have long looked to the decisions of the United States Supreme Court for guidance, citing and often following them in hundreds of their own rulings since the Second World War.

But now American legal influence is waning. Even as a debate continues in the court over whether its decisions should ever cite foreign law, a diminishing number of foreign courts seem to pay attention to the writings of American justices.

“One of our great exports used to be constitutional law,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. “We are losing one of the greatest bully pulpits we have ever had.”

From 1990 through 2002, for instance, the Canadian Supreme Court cited decisions of the United States Supreme Court about a dozen times a year, an analysis by The New York Times found. In the six years since, the annual citation rate has fallen by half, to about six.

Australian state supreme courts cited American decisions 208 times in 1995, according to a recent study by Russell Smyth, an Australian economist. By 2005, the number had fallen to 72.

The story is similar around the globe, legal experts say, particularly in cases involving human rights. These days, foreign courts in developed democracies often cite the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in cases concerning equality, liberty and prohibitions against cruel treatment, said Harold Hongju Koh, the dean of the Yale Law School. In those areas, Dean Koh said, “they tend not to look to the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The rise of new and sophisticated constitutional courts elsewhere is one reason for the Supreme Court’s fading influence, legal experts said. The new courts are, moreover, generally more liberal than the Rehnquist and Roberts courts and for that reason more inclined to cite one another.

Another reason is the diminished reputation of the United States in some parts of the world, which experts here and abroad said is in part a consequence of the Bush administration’s unpopularity around the world. Foreign courts are less apt to justify their decisions with citations to cases from a nation unpopular with their domestic audience.

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Published on September 18, 2008

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