Influences on the Decisions of the United States Supreme Court

With Attention to the Ideology of the Justices

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

44 Pages





Literature Review

Article 1

Article 2

Article 3

Article 4

Article 5

Methods and Data

Martin-Quinn Scores

Constant Ideal Point Model

Dynamic Ideal Point Model



At Individual Level: A Shift in Ideology

At Court Level: A Public Opinion Driven Court

At Individual Level: Effects of Appointments to the Court

At Court Level: A Chief Justice Drive Court


Table 1

Ideology Scores Table About Here

Justices are Ideology Driven: Attitudinal Model



What influences the way the Supreme Court decides a disposition of a case? Using data the Supreme Court Compendium ranging from 1946 to 2009 and varying sources of literature in the field, I developed several hypotheses: (1) On an individual level an increase overtime of the justices’ liberality; (2) the Supreme Court is influenced by public opinion directly or indirectly via Congress; (3) justices will offer opinions consistent with the ideals of their nominating President; and (4) the justices will formulate opinions consistent with that of the Chief Justice. Upon conclusion of my scholarly research and combination of data tables I found that there is a trend of ideology shifting from conservative towards more liberalism. Based upon the influence of the public on Congress I develop a new type of model I appropriately call the Legislative Model; the justices are policy driven. The president tries to nominate individuals with his ideology which shows through, however this can often be trumped by the influence of the Chief Justice on the ideology of individual justices. Based upon the research done for this paper, we can better understand what drives the opinions of the Supreme Court, directly and indirectly.


Why does the Supreme Court make the decisions it does? Using the Supreme Court Compendium I will look at data ranging from 1946 to 2009. This detailed time frame encompasses the beginning of the Vinson Court in 1946 through the Roberts Court in 2009. This range of data encompasses five different Supreme Court Chief Justices. With the data from the Supreme Court Compendium, I seek to find any trends that may exist across several fields. The trends will be in regards to potential influences on the Supreme Court at an individual level and as the Court level. Ideology is a main focal point for identifying how opinions are developed from the Supreme Court. Therefore, the ideology of all the justices from 1946 to 2009 will be heavily utilized. I will attempt to analyze the data literature surrounding this time to confirm or deny a relationship between ideology and influences on the Supreme Court and by the Supreme Court on outside actors. This influence extends beyond outside actors on the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court on outside actors to influences within the Supreme Court itself. This will allow me to identify any trends between the courts themselves. With the strategy of focusing on ideology scores, I believe that I will discover some very tangible data that will prove useful in determining any trends to explain the process and potential for decisions from the Supreme Court.

Once trends have been found, utilizing JSTOR and other pieces of literature I will explain these trends with studies and research by other scholars. I will also pay particular attention to the nomination process by the President and how this affects the trends of the Supreme Court. The trends that I will be paying attention to are the ideological values of the justices; conservative or liberal. Along with looking at the Presidents in office during the time of the five Chief Justices from 1946 to 2009, I will pay particular attention to Chief Justice Warren because of the severe spike in liberality among his court versus the other four courts. Chief Justice Warren caught my attention in particular because he is so far off the curve in terms of the direction of court decisions compared to the other four chief justices during this time period. Chief Justice Rehnquist will also gain a great deal of attention in my research compared to Justice Rehnquist. In addition, I will look at how the nomination process affects the ideological values of the justices. The second area to look at is the influence of public opinion on the justices’ ideology values. The third potential influence on ideological values of the justices and consequently how they vote is Congress, the legislative branch of the federal government. Lastly, I will give look into how the ideology of the Chief Justice may influence the individual justices and consequently the Court. I will relate my hypotheses to models that exist surrounding the Supreme Court, especially those developed by Segal and Spaeth (2002). As this paper develops, the research and literature in the field will go a long way to help the audience to understand how the Supreme Court thinks and why it thinks the way it does.

Literature Review

The literature review serves as a peak into the literature in the field. The purpose is to try and garner an understanding of what scholars in the field are finding. While it is virtually impossible to gather information from every source in the field, the literature review is an attempt to gather some of the best pieces of literature in the field such that would benefit the research paper with some credibility. The literature review is meant to be a core piece of the research paper as it is meant to support the arguments made throughout the paper.

Article 1

The article by Tom S. Clark entitled Measuring Ideological Polarization on the United States Supreme Court (2009) focused a great deal on the polarization of the Supreme Court. This was the focus of the article due to the lack of attention to polarization within the Supreme Court itself. Using a macro-level analysis, Clark seeks to answer the question about how the Court’s membership affects the aggregate outputs of the court. An important aspect to keep in mind when answering this question is the membership only varies with appointments to the Court because of the life-terms the justices have. Rather than focus on how the justices influence each others’ opinions, Clark focuses on how the policy preferences of the justices affect the opinions of the court as a whole. Using the axioms developed by Esteban and Ray (1994); (1) as intragroup homogeneity increases, polarization decreases, (2) as heterogeneity increases across group, polarization increases and (3) as the number of groups decreases, polarization increases. Using ideology estimates from two different sources, Clark then attempted to estimate the polarization of ideologies of the justices of the Supreme Court. There was a focus on the ideology of the justices, because per their seat on the court, they are expected to not vote based upon party lines. For example, while there are clearly defined Republicans and Democrats in Congress, this party divide does not exist in the Supreme Court. Regardless of whether or not the judges are expected to leave politics out of the decision making process, there are other ways for the court to become polarized.

Having found that the polarization statistic is the strongest and most reliable form for measuring the differences in ideologies of the court (Clark 151), Clark was then able to move forward to determine how it affects the decision making process. Clark found the polarization of the court is systematically related to the court publishing an opinion with dissenting opinions and cases decided by a one-vote margin, split decision cases. His study is one of the first to analyze the impact of judicial polarization on the outputs of the Supreme Court.

Article 2

In Issue Preferences and Evaluations of the U.S. Supreme Court (2007) by Marc J. Hetherington and Joseph L. Smith, they aim to demonstrate how the mass media has done little to demonstrate to the American public how the Supreme Court, since the Warren Court, has become increasingly conservative. Currently the Supreme Court has a much higher approval rating than that of Legislative and Executive branches for two reasons. The first is the products of the Supreme Court, the policies that are derived from the decisions. The second is the process with which the Supreme Court uses to come to these decisions. The decision making process is very sheltered and the public generally has very little idea of how the Supreme Court functions. Hetherington and Smith also seek to prove is how support for the Supreme Court has remained high because of the lack of transparency.

The court remains relatively undisturbed by the media. The court is not critiqued and this in turn allows it, according to Hetherington and Smith, to become increasingly conservative. Using research performed by other scholars, the articles summarizes how the most supportive group of the Supreme Court are liberals when in the fact the court had been moving towards being more conservative. Similarly, even as the court became more conservative, the liberals still had more support for the court. This can be attributed to the lack of media coverage of the Supreme Court. The liberals have consistently supported the Supreme Court, and regardless of ideology, this support remains steadfast because of the preconceived notions that the court may is still dominantly liberal.

Hetherington and Smith believe that if there were greater media coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision making process and looking into the discussions behind closed doors that there would be a shift in support for the court. We find that the only time the media pays attention to the Supreme Court is when there are landmark cases. The public today is better able to understand the Warren Court because of Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona than they would be able to understand the Rehnquist Court because of the difference in magnitude and number of landmark cases. It is possible to understand the lack of a shift in public opinion through the CNN Effect. Where the CNN Effect explains how the public is easily swayed by what they see and read in the media, the exact opposite applies in that the public will not change its opinion of an organization if they are not exposed to its workings.

Article 3

Stefanie A. Lindquist and Rorie Spill Solberg’s article, Judicial Review by the Burger and Rehnquist Courts: Explaining Justices’ Responses to Constitutional Challenges (2007), seeks to understand how attitudinal, contextual and institutional variables influence a justices vote on an item brought before the court. Lindquist and Solberg seek to answer three questions; how do the justices’ attitudes influence their votes regarding state and federal legislation; do the justices consider the position of the solicitor general or congress when making a decision; and finally do legal standards affect a justice’s decision to vote for or against legislation? Lindquist and Solberg developed seven hypotheses. These hypotheses covered several criteria. First, how aligned a justice’s ideology and the direction of the legislation was of great influence. Second, the source of the legislation in question determined where a justice would vote. Third, if a piece of legislation is supported by the solicitor general, it is more likely to be upheld by the court. Fourth, if it is congressionally willed legislation, it will most likely be upheld. Fifth, the older a statute gets, the less likely it will survive. Sixth, as support by amicus curiae increases the support by the justices inversely decreases. Lastly, if a piece of legislation or statute regarding civil liberties is brought before the Supreme Court, it has very little chance of survival. Using all relevant cases from the Burger and Rehnquist Courts between 1969 and 2000, Lindquist and Solberg find that the justices’ decisions are not influenced by one factor alone, but rather a combination of variables influences a justice’s decision on an ever varying scale.

What we consistently find within this article and other pieces of literature is the correlation of a justice voting in favor or against a statute or law depending on how it aligns with their ideology. It is only natural that a justice is less likely to vote against a piece of legislation that is consistent with their values. This seems to be the strongest influence of a justices voting policy over other influences such as the Executive or Legislative branches. In accordance with Dahl (1957), Lindquist and Solberg also found that a court was more likely to strike a statute that had been enacted in a previous majority in congress. What we find from this article and other pieces of literature consistently explain that the justices, regardless of how removed from outside influences, justices will always take a multitude of factors into consideration when deciding their opinion on a case.

Article 4

Kevin T. McGuire, Georg Vanberg, Charles E. Smith, Jr. and Gregory A. Caldeira use Measuring Policy Content on the U.S. Supreme Court (2009) to explain the influences on the justices decisions when evaluating a case. This article does well to exploit the bias that a justice may have. The article seeks to explain the strategy justices use when first deciding to take a case or not and second how they will vote, whether it is conservatively or liberally, on a case.

While at the head of the court, Chief Justice Warren stated, “’ [T]he most common members of our Court vote to grant certiorari is that they doubt the correctness of the decision of the lower court’ (1987, 127).” (McGuire et. al., 1306) This notion seemed a bit surprising in that we expect the justices to have the most objective outlook on a case. Instead, we have a Chief Justice explaining how even before hearing a case, the case is first taken on by the court through the notion that the Supreme Court disagrees with the decision of the lower court. This implication would appear to be twofold. First, for the party who won at the lower level court, if the Supreme Court decides to take on their case, it would appear that they have for the most part, already lost. Inversely, for the party who lost at the lower level court, they should be excited at the notion of the Supreme Court taking on their case because their chances of winning would seemingly in their favor. What one must consider when trying to analyze why the court would have this bias is the ideology of this court. Most if not all of the literature touches on the ideology of justices and the influences this has on their decisions as well as the impact their ideology has on the cases they take. Therefore, when looking at the bias they may have before they decide to take a case, it is important to consider the ideology of the Court as a whole. What is to be gained from this is while there is methodology in regards to the ideology of the Court; it would still be a gamble for any party to appeal to the Supreme Court over the lower court. Nonetheless, via some minor research as the ideology, the petitioning party could very quickly determine if it is in their favor or not to appeal.

Figure 8 on page 1314 of the article articulates the correlations between the ideology of the court and the chances of them reversing or affirming a lower court’s decision. Using this table alone, in moderation, a petitioning party would be able to quickly decide the odds of them winning a petition, given they know the ideology of the court. Figure 8 shows how there is a congruent relationship between the ideologies of the court and there is an inverse relationship between the ideology of the court and the chances of the court affirming the lower court. Simply put; the more liberal the court, the more likely they will reverse a lower court and the more conservative the court, the less likely they are to reverse a lower court. These findings are inversely related for the possibility of the lower court being affirmed.

While this article does well to explain the odds of a petitioning party winning at the Supreme Court level, there are a few bigger takeaways. First, McGuire et. al. find that there tends to be a realignment of the justices to the Chief Justice. This argument confirms my hypothesis that the Chief Justices play an instrumental role over the ideologies of the justices. Second, the ideology of the court and the ideologies of the justices are garnered from different sources. The ideology of the court is based upon the ideology of other courts whereas the ideology of the justices on the Supreme Court is based upon the other justices of the Supreme Court. This piece of literature like many others cannot emphasize enough the impact of ideology upon the decision making process of the Supreme Court.


Excerpt out of 44 pages


Influences on the Decisions of the United States Supreme Court
With Attention to the Ideology of the Justices
Norwich University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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878 KB
United States, Supreme Court, Ideology, Influence, Conservative, Liberal
Quote paper
Steven Bartomioli (Author), 2014, Influences on the Decisions of the United States Supreme Court, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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