This study analyzes how authoritarian leaders use the judicial system to solve the principal-agent problem in the government hierarchy. We argue that autocrats recentralize court personnel to enhance the central government’s monitoring power over local officials. We test this executive constraint theory using panel data on Chinese provincial-level court leaders who served from 2003 to 2012. Our empirical analysis takes advantage of a quasi-natural experiment in which the Chinese Communist Party recentralized court personnel by rotating provincial-level court leaders in 17 out of 31 provinces. We find that judicial recentralization increased adjudicated administrative lawsuits by nearly 30%, but it did not impact the approval of other lawsuits. We also show that judicial rotation increased the appearance of the executive in administrative lawsuits, providing additional support for the executive constraint theory.
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