Toward a Theory of Effective Supranational Adjudication

120 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 1998 Last revised: 26 Dec 2014

See all articles by Laurence R. Helfer

Laurence R. Helfer

Duke University School of Law; University of Copenhagen - iCourts - Centre of Excellence for International Courts

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Princeton University - Princeton School of Public and International Affairs


Supranational adjudication in Europe is a remarkable and surprising success. Europe's two supranational courts -- the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) -- issue dozens of judgments each year with which defending national governments habitually comply in essentially the same manner as they would with domestic court rulings. These experiences stand in striking contrast to those of many international tribunals past and present.

Can the European experience of supranational adjudication be transplanted beyond Europe? Professors Helfer and Slaughter argue that the effectiveness of the ECJ and the ECHR is linked to their power to hear claims brought by private parties directly against national governments or against other private parties. Such "supranational" jurisdiction has allowed the European courts to penetrate the surface of the state, to forge direct relationships not only with individual citizens but also with distinct government institutions such as national courts. Over time, this penetration and the deepening relationships between supranational jurists and domestic legal actors have led to the evolution of a "community of law," a web of nominally apolitical relations among subnational and supranational legal actors.

The simple provision of supranational jurisdiction, however, is not a guarantee of effective adjudication. Drawing on the observations of scholars, practitioners, and judges, Professors Helfer and Slaughter develop a "checklist" of factors that enhance the effectiveness of supranational adjudication. They distinguish among those factors that are within the control of member states; those that are within the control of the judges themselves; and those that may be beyond the control of either states or judges. Isolating the factors in this way provides both a rough metric for evaluating the effectiveness of other supranational tribunals and a potential set of prescriptions for judges on those tribunals seeking to enhance their institutions' effectiveness.

After developing the checklist, Professors Helfer and Slaughter use it to analyze the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC). Although the UNHRC was established expressly as a committee of experts rather than a court, analysis of its recent practice reveals that it is becoming increasingly "court-like." Moreover, within the constraints imposed by severely limited resources, UNHRC members are independently following many of the checklist prescriptions for increased effectiveness. The next step is for the organization to enter into a sustained dialogue with its European counterparts, harmonizing its decisions with theirs in some areas while consciously preserving its own distinctive jurisprudence in others. Structured and regular interaction between these tribunals would add additional voices to an emerging transjudicial conversation, potentially laying the foundation for a global community of law.

Suggested Citation

Helfer, Laurence R. and Slaughter, Anne-Marie, Toward a Theory of Effective Supranational Adjudication. Yale Law Journal, Vol. 107, No. 2, November 1997, Available at SSRN:

Laurence R. Helfer (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Dr.
Box 90360
Durham, NC 27708
United States
+1-919-613-8573 (Phone)


University of Copenhagen - iCourts - Centre of Excellence for International Courts ( email )

University of Copenhagen Faculty of Law
Karen Blixens Plads 16
Copenhagen S, DK-2300


Anne-Marie Slaughter

Princeton University - Princeton School of Public and International Affairs ( email )

Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08544-1021
United States
609-258-4800 (Phone)

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