Why is it that courts have not automatically gained power as a result of democratisation? While there have been some examples of the successful empowerment of courts (Ginsburg 2003), there are many failures (Trochev 2008). Judicial empowerment cannot be captured in dichotomous terms and does not evolve in neat, incremental linearity. Comparing three geographically contiguous former British colonies in east Africa allows us to plot capricious pathways towards or away from judicial empowerment. In order to capture the nuances of judicial power, we must remember that courts cannot be understood as merely an external restraint on power but, instead, must be seen as part of existing political confi gurations of power. In short, judicial behaviour is endogenous to the broader political, social and economic environment. It must be examined in context, rather than in a theoretical vacuum.