by Daniela Piana. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010. 244pp. Hardback. £60.00/$114.95. ISBN: 9780754677581.

Reviewed by Mary L. Volcansek, Department of Political Science, Texas Christian University. Email: m.volcansek [at] tcu.edu.


Daniela Piana has provided a new lens through which to view, assess and measure judicial accountability. Though her analysis focuses on five new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe – Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania – her conceptual framework and methodologies are appropriate for analysis of judicial accountability in other settings, including established democracies, ones in transition, quasi-democracies and authoritarian regimes. Moreover, her framework for analysis also offers a counter to the inclination in some American states to view the ballot box as the sole means of achieving judicial accountability.

The key to Piana’s framework resides in her construction of what she calls “ideal-types of constitutionalism,” which are characterized by legal accountability, guarantees of judicial independence and professional accountability. Her ideal types include the United Kingdom (UK) and United States, in which accountability is horizontal; France and later South European nations; and the German system. Thus, for example, for the United States legal accountability depends on the appellate system, judicial review and legal education, whereas judicial independence is achieved by mechanisms for recruitment, selection and promotion, along with how judges are trained, disciplined and removed. Professional accountability depends on judicial ethics obtained through legal profession, in-service training through legal practice and other legal actors. That system of accountability differs significantly from the German and South European systems in training, the hierarchical arrangement of the systems and placement of the judiciary in the political structure.

Piana teases out a more elaborate framework of hard accountability, e.g., recruitment, selection, promotion and discipline, and soft accountability. The latter includes legal, managerial, institutional, societal and professional forms of accountability. For example, legal accountability depends on judicial review, the appellate system, due process procedures and the hierarchy of norms. Managerial accountability depends, on the other hand, on standards of efficiency, whereas societal accountability reflects controls exerted by private citizens and civil society organizations. Piana elaborates a quite extensive set of indicators for assessing each (see Tables 1.2-1.6)

Because the European Union and the Council of Europe were central actors and largely the catalysts for judicial reform in the post-Communist nations that Piana analyzes, she pays particular attention to strategies that were used to encourage and assist the new [*589] democracies in the process of judicial reform (monitoring, twinning, training and networking). Thus, a set of “European standards of legal accountability” were created as goals and yardsticks for the applicant judiciaries to achieve.

Most of us who study comparative judicial politics know little about the functioning of courts in the new democracies in the post-Communist world beyond a few case studies that are time-bound to a single snapshot of the transition to democracy process. Piana offers a nuanced empirical comparison on a range of measures examining how courts in the five nations she studied fared. I found her comparisons of perceptions of corruption, efficiency, impartiality and independence of each nation and the EU 27 particularly interesting. However, it took me a while to discern in Table 3.8 whether higher numbers or lower ones were the more desirable.

Piana does not follow the strict case study format, but rather groups Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic together and Bulgaria with Romania. Even so, the groupings still allow interesting comparisons within each group. Piana mined a variety of data sources to facilitate meaningful comparisons on all five areas of judicial accountability. Anyone teaching European politics that extends across the EU 27 would benefit from Piana’s account of how the five nations accommodated EU and Council of Europe standards, particularly since each nation chose a somewhat different path and created different judicial institutions.

Piana concludes that extra-national factors were central to judicial reform in all five countries, but that the influence of supranational actors also may have created cognitive dissonance among the legal elites creating and staffing these institutions. External factors may prove to clash with domestic legal cultures, particularly for bureaucratic judiciaries where internal cohesion and esprit d’corps are strong.

Piana’s conceptual framework and approach to the issue of judicial accountability, one long ignored in most studies of foreign judiciaries, has much broader applicability than the five nations studied in this volume. Moreover, her clear enunciation of her framework and indicators constitutes a model of careful research. She did not restrict her research to a single data set, but rather sought databases of every sort to draw comparsions. I would recommend this book to all who study comparative judicial politics and, indeed, even to students of the American judicial system. Piana provides us with an innovative, thorough and useful way to think about, measure and assess judicial accountability. I only wish that the copyeditor had been a bit more thorough, as some non-idiomatic uses of English at times break the reader’s train of thought.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Mary L. Volcansek.