Can courts really ‘build’ democracy in a state emerging from undemocratic rule? In contemporary thought, courts are perceived as central components in any political settlement aimed at achieving a functioning democratic order in a previously authoritarian state (this piece, unlike others in the special collection, does not specifically address post-conflict contexts). The past four decades have witnessed an increasing tendency in post-authoritarian states to place significant faith in courts as guardians of the new democratic dispensation – a trend replicated in contemporary democracy-building projects (e.g. Tunisia). Constitutional courts (including supreme courts) are expected not only to breathe life into the paper promises of the democratic constitutional text, but also, increasingly, to guard and build democracy itself by policing political adherence to emerging transnational norms of democratic governance. Outside the state, regional human rights courts have also been cast as democracy-builders, acting as a support, backup mechanism, and even surrogate for domestic courts. Yet, despite this ‘court obsession’, our understanding of courts as democracy-builders remains critically underdeveloped. This article argues that while it has been assumed that courts have a central role to play in democracy-building, this assumption is based on rather slim evidence and undermined by yawning gaps in existing research.