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Theorizing the U.S. Supreme Court  

Charles M. Cameron and Lewis A. Kornhauser

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.

Article

The Supreme Court Decision Making Process  

Timothy R. Johnson

The U.S. Supreme Court is but one of three political institutions within the structure of the U.S. federal government. Within this system of separated powers it rules on the constitutionality of some of the nation’s most important legal and political issues. In making such decisions, the nation’s highest court may be considered the most powerful of the three branches of the U.S. federal government. Understanding this process will allow scholars, students of the Court, and Court watchers alike to gain a better understanding of the way in which the justices conduct their business and to come to terms with some of the most important legal and political decisions in our nation’s history. Combining a theoretical account of Supreme Court decision-making with an examination of its internal decision-making process illuminates this opaque institution.

Article

Courts and Social Policy  

Jeb Barnes

How do courts affect social policy? Answering this question is deceptively complex. Part of the challenge stems from the sheer scope of contemporary judicial policymaking, particularly in the United States, where litigation reaches into nearly every nook and cranny of the American welfare state and casts a shadow on policy issues ranging from marriage equality to healthcare reform. Another obstacle is that scholars remain deeply divided on fundamental questions about the nature of judicial decisions and how their policy effects should be studied. These disagreements, in turn, have engendered three very different approaches to studying the role of courts in social policy that often talk past each other. The dominant approach views judicial decisions as prescriptive rules—legal commands from the bench—and asks: To what extent do judicial decisions change policy? This view implies that judicial decisions are “treatments” whose efficacy should be tested by measuring shifts in policy outcomes from the pre- to post-treatment period or across treatment and control groups. An alternative tradition envisages judicial decisions as a potential resource, which can be used by activists as leverage in building movements and pursuing agendas in multiple forums. Here, the core question is not whether court decisions produce abrupt policy shifts, but how activists use these decisions to challenge the status quo, mobilize interests, and generate pressure for policy change. A third approach sees legal precedent as a constitutive framework that shapes and constrains policymaking and its politics over time. The test for whether law matters under this approach centers on the degree to which judicial decisions influence the developmental trajectories of policy and politics, which includes consideration of paths not taken in the policymaking process. That is not to say that the literature is wholly discordant. Despite their significant conceptual differences, these approaches tend to converge on the general idea that judicial policymaking shares many attributes with other policymaking processes: the implementation of judicial decisions, like statues and regulations, is contested and subject to capture by sophisticated interests; litigation, like lobbying, is a form of mobilization that seeks to translate policy grievances into effective political demands; judicial precedents, like other policies, generate policy feedback. Identifying similarities between judicial policymaking and its counterparts is a signature achievement in the study of courts and social policy, which has largely dispelled the “myth of rights” and simplistic notions that the law is somehow removed from politics. Yet it arguably has had an unintended effect. Normalizing judicial policymaking—making it seem like other types of policymaking—threatens to render it less interesting as a distinct topic for research. This article suggests the time has come for all of the various research traditions in the field to return to foundational questions about what makes judicial policymaking distinctive, and systematically study how these particular tilts and tendencies influence the continuing colloquy that drives the policymaking process.

Article

Global Actors: Networks, Elites, and Institutions  

Mikael Rask Madsen and Mikkel Jarle Christensen

Over the past several decades scholars have intensively debated what factors drive globalization. Answers have ranged from the emergence of the information society and the global economy to value-conflicts embedded in different civilizations. A different yet closely related question is who is driving globalization? That is, however, much less studied, even if it is arguably key to making global governance intelligible. A whole list of actors seem to offer possible answers to the question of who the globalizers are: Are they global institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Criminal Court (ICC); communities of experts providing technocratic solutions; transnational networks of activists seeking to alter global and national politics by pursuing, for example, environmental or human rights agendas; or are they powerful individuals forming transnational elites taking the fate of the global society in their hands at a safe distance from ordinary politics in places such as Brussels, New York, or Davos?

Article

Judicial Impact  

Thomas M. Keck and Logan Strother

Scholars have long been interested in judicial impact—the ability of courts to meaningfully alter policy or politics—because judicial decisions shape law, have the potential to affect many people, and may even implicate democracy in a fundamental sense. Classic studies in this tradition concern the degree to which actors outside the court comply with judicial decrees, such as whether or not (or to what extent) schools desegregated in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. However, scholars working in a variety of other traditions have likewise examined the impact of judicial decisions, though they have not always used those terms. For example, advocates of interbranch analysis have situated courts within broader ongoing policy processes, and in so doing have documented repeated instances in which policy outcomes were altered by the actions of lawyers and judges. Likewise, students of legal mobilization have documented the sometimes constitutive effects of legal ideas on a wide range of political identities, attitudes, and behaviors. In short, the concept of impact includes a variety of ways in which courts influence politics, and the field of judicial impact studies will continue to benefit from a vital diversity of methods of inquiry, subjects of analysis, and conceptions of law.