Supreme Court Auditing of the US Courts of Appeals: An Organizational Perspective
Lindquist, Stefanie A., Haire, Susan B., Songer, Donald R., Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory
In the federal judicial hierarchy, the US Supreme Court exercises final authority over the interpretation of federal law, and its interpretations are ostensibly binding on the lower federal courts. According to the norm of stare decisis, decisions rendered by the High Court may not be overruled by a lower federal court, but rather must be followed until altered or overruled by the Supreme Court itself. Nevertheless, the lower federal courts enjoy some flexibility in the interpretation of the Court's rulings, in part due to the malleable nature of precedent (Johnson 1979; Songer and Sheehan 1990). Circuit court judges may, for example, distinguish Supreme Court precedent so as to eviscerate or undermine its impact, and in some rare circumstances, circuit judges may even "underrule" Supreme Court precedent by rejecting a ruling from that Court (Caminker 1994a, 1994b). More frequently, perhaps, circuit judges must resolve issues with no precise guidance from Supreme Court precedent.
As a consequence, circuit court compliance with Supreme Court justices' preferences for particular outcomes is far from assured, especially as the span of control within the federal judiciary has increased. As one law professor has commented, "The span of control in the judge-judge relationship has increased in recent years to the point where only nine justices supervise roughly two hundred circuit judges, who in turn supervise more than six hundred district judges" (Fiss 1983, 1452-3). Indeed, with only nine justices and an extremely limited plenary docket, the Supreme Court's ability to monitor and control varying lower court interpretations is narrowly constrained by its institutional capacity (Strauss 1987). Since it can only review a fraction of cases appealed from the lower courts on the merits, the Court must allocate its decision-making resources strategically so as to maximize its supervisory control over the policy outputs of the federal judiciary and thus ensure general compliance with its decisions, husband its institutional authority, and promote uniform federal legal standards.
From an institutional or organizational perspective, the Court thus faces a complex task. Within the federal judicial system, the Court must supervise 13 circuit courts that vary widely in terms of size, docket composition, partisanship, caseload, and geographical location. And it must do so in the absence of methods of control traditionally available to superiors within hierarchical organizations, as the justices cannot control lower court judges by firing, demoting, or financially penalizing them for deviant behavior. Although avoidance of reversal may provide a meaningful incentive for some judges (Posner 1993; but see Klein and Hume 2003), reversal is only a remote possibility for the vast majority of circuit court decisions. Thus, reversal of individual decisions, alone, does not provide the Supreme Court with a sufficient "stick" to control the behavior of lower court judges. This institutional conundrum raises theoretical and empirical questions regarding the Supreme Court's capacity to control policy outputs across the federal court system.
In this study, we explore the nature of the Court's decisional processes in the light of these puzzles. To do so, we construct and empirically evaluate a model of Supreme Court auditing behavior that incorporates organizational considerations relevant to the hierarchical relationships between the Court and the circuits. Although principal-agent models often focus on the relationship between an individual agent and its principal, here we extend beyond the simple assessment of superior-subordinate dyads to a broader assessment of the institutional relationship between the Supreme Court and the circuits. Thus, we rely on organizational models of political institutions informed by principal-agent theory to build our hypotheses concerning Supreme Court supervisory …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Supreme Court Auditing of the US Courts of Appeals: An Organizational Perspective. Contributors: Lindquist, Stefanie A. - Author, Haire, Susan B. - Author, Songer, Donald R. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. Volume: 17. Issue: 4 Publication date: October 2007. Page number: 607+. © 1999 University of Kansas. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.