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“Dictators and their Repressive Agents: Authoritarian Judiciary, Information Screening, and State Repression” by Howard Liu

November 3, 2021 @ 9:00 am 10:00 am JST

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Authors: Howard Liu (Essex)

Abstract: In studying state repression, we often assume states of being unitary actors deciding and exercising repression. Yet in reality, dictators critically rely on agents to suppress political challengers, and the interaction between the ruler and repressive agents has important impacts on repression decisions. This study focuses on the judiciary system and the principal-agent relationship between the ruler and judges. We conceptualize the repressive apparatus as a hierarchical institution where courts process information and filter out unimportant noises before they are sent to the ruler for review. When dissent increases and the quantity of dissent information overwhelms the ruler, judges are empowered to perform quality control and only deliver more threatening cases, rather than all cases, up for review to increase decision-making efficiency. However, the empowerment of quality control gives judges opportunities to cheat by reducing cases qualified for review to avoid decision rejection and sanctions, ultimately hurting rulers’ control over courts and undermining the goal of repression. Using declassified archive documenting the judicial process in Taiwan’s authoritarian period and a regression discontinuity design, we find that judges tend to reduce penalty when the president only reviews more severely-sentenced cases. We also find evidence that this distorted behavior is driven by judges’ fear of sanctions when the president rejects their decisions in review. These findings shed new light on the interplay between authoritarian judiciaries and repression decisions and the unintended consequences of court empowerment and information screening.

Discussants: Fiona Shen Bayh (William and Mary).

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