Crafting Coherent Legal Rules
Can collegial courts craft coherent rules? Extant studies of judgment aggregation on collegial courts show how the judges’ preferred rules affect consistency of doctrine. I identify a choice of institutional rules, heightened standards of review, that can result in doctrinal inconsistency, and demonstrate when appellate judges can safely increase scrutiny of trial court findings and when such scrutiny is problematic. In many contexts, more stringent appellate review undercuts courts’ ability to justify their rulings coherently, which has important implications for the fair administration of justice, the development and consistency of legal doctrine, and courts’ role in protecting civil liberties.
Judicial Independence and Political Competition: Comparing Democracies Over Time
(with Joshua Boston and David Carlson)
Scholars of comparative courts have long been fascinated with variations in judicial independence across states, regimes, and time. Whether independence, in turn, depends on political competition remains an open question, as extant research has reached uncertain conclusions, often relying on questionable assumptions and data sources. This paper presents a formal model predicting the conditions under which legislative political competition causes a political power vacuum, which necessitates judicial independence and policy making. In short, when an ineffectual legislature cannot address a policy-seeker’s proposal, the courts can intervene, causing a de facto increase in judicial independence. Empirical results confirm these theoretically derived expectations, as aggregate measures of political competition across space and time cause significant changes in de facto judicial independence. Our findings have practical implications regarding when we might observe policy-seekers litigating issues rather than seeking legislation.
Attention to Precedent in a Judicial Hierarchy
(with Thomas G. Hansford and James F. Spriggs, II)
Who controls the federal judicial agenda? Judicial agenda setting studies typically focus on the Supreme Court’s agenda setting ability by considering individual case selection or attention to broad issue areas by the Court. We re-conceptualize the judicial agenda as attention to precedent and study the agenda setting ability of courts at all levels of the federal judicial hierarchy. We use decades of Supreme Court, appeals court, and district court citations to all Supreme Court cases decided between 1946 and 1986 to estimate a series of vector autoregression models that allow us to identify how each level of court initiates or responds to variation in the attention to a given precedent in other levels of court. The results reveal a new empirical regularity: while the Supreme Court may exert some top-down control of the federal judicial agenda, lower courts play an important role in influencing attention to precedent at the Court.
Ends Against the Middle: Scaling Votes when Ideological Opposites Behave the Same for Antithetical Reasons
(with Jacob Montgomery)
Standard methods for measuring ideology from voting records assume strict monotonicity of responses in individuals’ latent traits. If this assumption holds, we should rarely observe instances where individuals at the ideological ends vote together in opposition to moderates. In practice, however, there are many times when individuals from both extremes vote identically but for opposing reasons. For example, both liberal and conservative justices may dissent from the same Supreme Court decision but provide ideologically contradictory rationales. In legislative settings, ideological opposites may join together to oppose moderate legislation in pursuit of antithetical goals. In this paper, we introduce a scaling model that accommodates non-monotonic response functions and provide a novel estimation approach that improves upon existing routines. We apply this method to voting data from the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress and show that it outperforms standard methods in terms of both model fit and substantive insights. We argue that our proposed method represents a superior default approach for generating one-dimensional ideological estimates in many important settings of interest to political science.