Given that the United States Supreme Court is not specifically required to follow past decisions, it has been difficult to explain why the Court ever adheres to precedent that it does not agree with. Consequently, research to-date has sought to determine if the Supreme Court is an unconstrained political actor or if it is constrained by a norm of following precedent. The current research responds to this existing puzzle by empirically testing the theory that the US Supreme Court adheres to precedent because of its effect in guiding lower court decision-making in those thousands of cases that the US Supreme Court will never hear. The research plan involves coding 53 US Supreme Court cases and 1700 Court of Appeals cases from the period 1965 through 2008 related to gender equity claims. Using this data, the researcher will test the relationship between precedent and other political and institutional concerns.

The findings from this research will advance understanding of the impact of existing legal decisions on the present decision making processes of the US Supreme Court.

Project Report

This project seeks to explain why a politically-minded Supreme Court would issue a decision that diverges from its most preferred ideological outcome. At first blush, it would seem that the Court is being constrained by precedent and acting against its ideological preferences. Instead, from this research project, I show that the Supreme Court does have an interest less preferred ideological decisions. The Court may be pursuing a legal standard which resolves a large number of cases within a class of cases in favor of its most preferred outcome. While this does not mean the Supreme Court is beyond ideological considerations, it does indicate that even an ideological court has an interest in precedent. The data collected for this project supported the theoretical argument that the Supreme Court strategically uses legal rules. First, I developed a new measure of precedent. This measure captures the legal rules employed by the Court and validates the notion that particular legal rules lead to particular outcomes. This is generally supported both at the Supreme Court level and the Court of Appeals level. Second, I explore the Supreme Court's decision to change precedent. I find support for my hypothesis that as the lower court becomes more divergent, the Supreme Court is more likely to change precedent. Rather than being a single-minded seeker of policy preferences in a given case, the Supreme Court has a broader interest in the implications of its decisions. Even strategic choice models tend to focus on how the Supreme Court bargains to achieve its most preferred outcome in a given case. Here I show that the strategy of the Supreme Court includes the Court's usage of legal rules and its position in the federal judicial hierarchy. Finally, this section demonstrates the factors that predict a justice's application of a particular legal rule. Justice ideology and lower court ideology predict the legal rule a justice employs. Justices are strategic actors that pursue policy using legal rules rather than just dispositional outcome.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Susan Sterett
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Texas A&M Research Foundation
College Station
United States
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