I See Right Through You: The Logic and Consequences of Spurious Criminal Charges

(with Yuna Blajer)

In this paper, we analyze the logic and consequences of raising blatantly spurious judicial charges. First, we situate false charges as a specific type of strategic manipulation of the judiciary, distinct from allocating resources and dictating priorities of investigation (often observed in democracies) and different from prosecuting an opponent for political benefit by bringing up charges that are credible or real (often observed in authoritarian regimes). We argue that false charges provide political benefits that go well beyond the direct elimination of political competition and popularity boosts. Importantly, false charges allow the incumbent to decide when and why to drop the charges or release the accused, thus granting him control of the political spectrum without compromising popularity. Second, we find that the constant reliance on false charges during an authoritarian era can lead to a dysfunctional judiciary after a transition to democracy, where false charges are constantly raised even in the absence of a strategic reason to do so. In a theory-building exercise, we present two case studies of persons who were jailed under charges that were patently false in Mexico under authoritarianism and democracy.

Corrupting Accountability

Is the judicial prosecution of corrupt elites different in democracies than in autocracies? It is widely believed that democratic institutions improve judicial account- ability of corrupt politicians, but this claim has not been systematically tested. Using a game theoretical model, this paper finds that incumbents in democracies are more likely to prosecute their challengers than autocrats. Contrary to what existing research has suggested, however, this can be attributed to the fact that democracies constrain executives in their use of extra-legal—and coercive—means to curb opposition, and not necessarily because democracies increase oversight of those in power. I test the implications of the model using an original dataset of judicial investigations of Mexican governors that exploits subnational variation of regime type. I find that constrained governors prosecute their predecessors at higher rates than unconstrained governors, and that such prosecutions are consistent with a politicized use of the judicial system.