The Effects of Information on the Accuracy of Presidential Assessments of Supreme Court Nominee Preferences

By Szmer, John; Songer, Donald R. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Information on the Accuracy of Presidential Assessments of Supreme Court Nominee Preferences


Szmer, John, Songer, Donald R., Political Research Quarterly


Models of presidential success in the judicial appointment process assume that a president selects a nominee who will maximize his influence on the Court. The models assume that the president accurately assesses the preferences of potential nominees. We argue that these perceptions are subject to systematic errors. Specifically, the amount of information available to the evaluator (the president and his staff) of a Supreme Court nominee's policy preferences affects the accuracy of the evaluation. These models assume that the president and/or his staff can accurately predict the policy preferences of the potential nominees. We argue that the precision of these assessments is a function of the information available to the president and his staff. We test this hypothesis using the prior experience of the nominee as a measure of the information available to the president and those members of his staff assigned to investigate potential Supreme Court nominees. Using heteroskedastic probit, we find a significant relationship between the amount of information (measured as prior legislative, executive, judicial, and academic experience) and the accuracy of the assessments of the nominees' preferences. This relationships hold even after controlling for various factors including the salience the president attaches to the issues decided by the justice and the relative relationship between the preferences of the president, Senate, and the remaining sitting justices when the nomination was made.

There can be little doubt that presidents draw on a wide variety of powers in an attempt to influence policy. A critical tool in that effort is the appointment power, including the power to appoint justices to the Supreme Court. While most presidential initiatives to influence policy are limited to the president's term in office, the judicial appointment power affords presidents with opportunities to create "an enduring legacy long after their terms are through" (Segal, Timpone, and Howard 2000, 558). To be successful in this endeavor to influence policy, presidents must be successful in securing the appointment of justices with similar policy preferences, and those judicial preferences in turn must then have a major influence on judicial votes. Recent analyses suggest that over the past half century, presidents have in fact been reasonably successful in appointing justices who share their values and subsequently vote in rough concordance with the preferences of the president (Scigliano 1971; Segal, Timpone, and Howard 2000). Nevertheless, a substantial portion of the variance in the voting of the justices is not explained by the measures of presidential preferences used in these or similar analyses (Gates and Cohen 1989; Lindquist, Yalof, and Clark 2000; Segal and Cover 1989; Segal, Timpone and Howard. 2000).

These findings are consistent with conclusions of most modern Supreme Court scholars that attitudes are a significant factor in the explanation of the justices' decisions (Epstein and Knight 1998; Maltzman, Spriggs and Wahlbeck 2000; Schubert 1965; Songer and Lindquist 1996). It is also widely believed that all of the major participants in the selection process believe that the justices' attitudes matter (Epstein and Knight 1998; Maltzman, Spriggs and Wahlbeck 2000; Segal and Spaeth 1993; Songer and Lindquist 1996). Consequently, the behavior of presidents, senators, and interest groups all appear to be motivated primarily by their perceptions of the congruence between the nominee's ideological values and their own policy preferences, tempered in part by strategic calculations (Moraski and Shipan 1999; Overby et al 1992; Ruckman 1993; Segal, Cameron and Cover 1992).

The present study contributes to both the understanding of judicial voting and the dynamics of judicial selection by exploring the role of information in the assessment of judicial attitudes. Specifically, we test whether the information about the policy preferences of potential nominees to the Supreme Court that is available to the president (and his staff) helps to explain the degree of congruence between the policy preferences of nominating presidents and the policies adopted by the justices they select. …

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