Current Research

Working Papers

Estimating the Ideal Points of Organized Interests in Legal Policy Space

Scholars have been limited in their theorizing and testing of theory regarding the incidence and impact of the participation of organized interests at the Supreme Court due to a critical measurement issue - the inability to properly locate these interests in the legal policy space in which the Court operates. We use the positions articulated in amicus curiae briefs filed in the 1953 through 2013 Supreme Court Terms to estimate the ideal points of the 192 most active organized interests in the Court’s legal policy space. We treat these amicus brief-based “votes” on cases as analogous to the votes cast by the justices in these cases, allowing us to estimate the locations of these organized interests and the justices in the same legal policy space. We utilize a recent extension of the IRT ideal point estimation model designed to account for nonresponses or abstentions. The resulting ideal point estimates for the organized interests are quite different from those obtained with the traditional IRT approach, implying that it is a mistake to treat abstentions as missing-at-random. After considering the validity and dimensionality of these ideal point estimates, we tentatively show how these ideal point estimates could be applied to a pair of substantive questions. We find that over time the location of the median amicus brief roughly tracks the location of the median justice and that there is a substantial ideological component to Justice Stevens’ use of amicus briefs in his opinions. (Coauthored with Sarah Depaoli)

The Political Court?

Do people fundamentally perceive the Supreme Court as a political institution? This question underlies much of the theorizing about how the public evaluates the Court and its decisions. We introduce and develop a new, implicit association-based measure of how people perceive the Court. This measurement strategy relies on the extent to which people readily associate political attributes with the Supreme Court relative to two alternative institutions: Congress and traffic courts. This measure reveals that the public implicitly perceives the Court as less political than Congress and more political than traffic court. We demonstrate that implicit perceptions of the political nature of the Court are distinct from both implicit affect for the Court and explicit perceptions of politicization. We find that implicit perceptions predict diffuse support for the Court and specific support for one of the two decisions included in our study. Implicit perceptions of the political nature of the Court do not, however, predict opinions about the appointment process. (Coauthored with Chanita Intawan and Steve Nicholson).

Estimating the Location of the States in Legal Policy Space

The states are a unique and important set of “interests” that advocate before the Supreme Court, yet there currently exists no measure of their location in the legal policy space in which the Court operates. To generate such a measure, we rely on the states’ amicus curiae filings at the Court and treat the positions taken in these briefs as akin to the votes cast by the justices. We then use item-response models to estimate the states’ ideal points. In doing so, we consider the implications of two types of missing data problems: Court cases in which there are no state votes and cases in which some states do not vote. Our estimates reveal that states have increasingly taken more conservative positions than the justices. We also find interesting cross-sectional and longitudinal variation in the positions of the states. With this measure, scholars can now better test spatial theories of the causes and consequences of state participation at the Court, including theories of how states do or do not represent public preferences while advocating before the Court. (Coauthored with Sarah Depaoli).

Linguistic Complexity and Public Acceptance of Supreme Court Decisions

Scholars suggest that judges have an incentive to use complex language to increase support for their decisions and decrease the likelihood of adverse responses from other actors. It is unknown, however, how people actually respond to complex legal language. Using a survey experiment, we manipulate the complexity of the language conveying two recent Court decisions, the institutional source of these decisions, and the presence of party cues. For one of these two decisions we find evidence that linguistic complexity decreases acceptance of the decision while legalistic language increases acceptance. We also find limited evidence that our language manipulations affect perceptions of whether the decision was political. Our results reveal that complex decision language does not, however, make party cues more relevant. The general take-away is that neither linguistic complexity nor legalistic language can consistently generate much in the way of support for a decision or otherwise change how people view it. (Coauthored with Chelsea Coe).

Using the Amici Network to Measure the Ideological Loading of Supreme Court Cases

I propose an amici-based measure of the ideological loading of the cases the Supreme Court hears. For a given Court case, I determine the extent to which the pattern of amicus-based ties in this case reflect the historical tie patterns observed with the involved organized interests. Assuming that these historical patterns of ties between organized interests reflect the ideological positions of these interests, the degree to which the pattern of ties in a particular case match the historical pattern indicates how clearly the case loads onto a typical ideological dimension. After developing and summarizing this measure in detail, I compare it with several existing measures that have been suggested as switching the justices’ ideological predispositions on and off. I then demonstrate that the validity of this new measure of ideological loading by showing that it conditions the effect of the justices’ policy preferences on their votes on the merits. I conclude with a discussion of the potential applications of this new measure.

Attention to Precedent in a Judicial Hierarchy

We contend that variation in attention paid to precedents is an important component of agenda setting in federal judicial hierarchy. Using decades-worth of Supreme Court, appeals court, and district court citations to 30 randomly selected landmark precedents, we 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 that while the Supreme Court may exert some limited top-down control of the federal judicial agenda, lower courts play an important role in influencing attention to precedent at the Court. (Coauthored with Jim Spriggs)

The Legal Advocacy Network

While prior work provides a good deal of information on the aggregate patterns of organized interest involvement at the Supreme Court and the individual-level decisions to file amicus briefs, we know little about the structure of the large, diverse community of interests that lobby the Court. This paper presents an initial effort to apply the concepts and tools of social network analysis to better identify, describe, and understand this structure, which I term the legal advocacy network. I first define, measure, and illustrate the advocacy network at the Supreme Court from the 1953 to 2006 terms. I then turn, in order, to discussing, and in places tentatively demonstrating, how these network data can be fruitfully used to gain leverage on 1) individual interests, 2) the organized interest community, and 3) important characteristics of Supreme Court cases.