Carnegie Mellon University

Ignacio Arana

July 27, 2020

"This is super valuable information. Nobody else has it": How Ignacio Arana's PhD research influenced his latest paper

By Bill Brink

The genesis of Ignacio Arana’s most recent paper occurred nearly a decade ago, after a project as a PhD student led him to scour century-old books in the basement of the Guatemalan Supreme Court. In the United States, the high court’s history is accessible to anyone with a cell phone, but that isn’t the case for some Latin American countries.

“I thought, this is super valuable information,” said Arana, now an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy. “Nobody else has it, so I should think of ideas to propose research.”

Last week, one of his ideas came to fruition. Arana and two co-authors – Melanie M. Hughes, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Arana’s advisor and mentor when Arana was a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh and now a political science and global affairs professor at the University of Notre Dame – published a paper entitled “Judicial Reshuffles and Women Justices in Latin America” in the American Journal of Political Science. The AJPS is the top publication in the field, ranked first in Political Science and tenth in Social Science by Google Scholar.

Several years back, Pérez-Liñán won funding from the National Science Foundation and enlisted Arana, his research assistant, to help him build a database. During the two years Arana worked on the project, which involved tracing the composition of supreme courts in Latin America since 1900, he conducted field research in Guatemala. Eventually, he began studying the relationship between leftist governments and the appointment of women to high courts, and Pérez-Liñán contributed the idea of examining judicial reshuffles – the forced removal of more than half of the justices on a court. Because of the small number of judges who serve on high courts and their lengthy terms, increasing the percentage of women is a slow process – unless the government intervenes.

“It’s an erosion of judicial independence,” Arana said. “The government is inducing justices to leave the bench through different means. This can be through offering really appealing retirement plans, it can be inducing them through criticism through the media, it can be through all sorts of informal pressure.”

The trio hypothesized that reshuffles initiated by leftist governments would create opportunities to add more women to the court. After studying ninety-five such episodes across eighteen countries between 1961 and 2014, they found that hypothesis to be correct, but also that the gains in gender diversification were small and unsustainable.

“Over time, it does not become a virtuous cycle in which more women are appointed, and that leads to a sustainable increase of women in the court,” Arana said. “It’s a short-term shock.”

Arana’s research dovetailed with recent literature that studies the relationship between the positions in government that women hold and the actual power those positions wield. The country with the highest percentage of women in its legislature, Arana noted, is Rwanda. Next on the list is Cuba.

“It’s not only important to study when the women reach positions of power, but also when that newly acquired power is substantial,” Arana said. “… We should be looking beyond the superficial appointment of women to a position of power, and we should examine if they are actually empowered.”