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date: 26 January 2021

Theorizing the U.S. Supreme Courtlocked

  • Charles M. CameronCharles M. CameronDepartment of Politics, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University
  •  and Lewis A. KornhauserLewis A. KornhauserSchool of Law, New York University

Summary

We summarize the formal theoretical literature on Supreme Court decision-making. We focus on two core questions: What does the Supreme Court of the United States do, and how can one model those actions; and, what do the justices of the Supreme Court want, and how can one model those preferences? Given the current state of play in judicial studies, these questions then direct this survey mostly to so-called separation of powers (SOP) models, and to studies of a multi-member (“collegial”) court employing the Supreme Court’s very distinctive and highly unusual voting rule.

The survey makes four main points. First, it sets out a new taxonomy that unifies much of the literature by linking judicial actions, modeling conventions, and the treatment of the status quo. In addition, the taxonomy identifies some models that employ inconsistent assumptions about Supreme Court actions and consequences. Second, the discussion of judicial preferences clarifies the links between judicial actions and judicial preferences. It highlights the relationships between preferences over dispositions, preferences over rules, and preferences over social outcomes. And, it explicates the difference between consequential and expressive preferences. Third, the survey delineates the separate strands of SOP models. It suggests new possibilities for this seemingly well-explored line of inquiry. Fourth, the discussion of voting emphasizes the peculiar characteristics of the Supreme Court’s voting rule. The survey maps the movement from early models that ignored the special features of this rule, to more recent ones that embrace its features and explore the resulting (and unusual) incentive effects.

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