State Supreme Court Decision Making in Confession Cases

Article excerpt

State Supreme Court Decision Making in Confession Cases*

The federal nature of the American judiciary suggests that a state court of last resort may evade decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court if those decisions do not comport with the preferences of the state supreme court judges or are in conflict with the prevailing ethos in the state. We offer a multiple principal agency model of state supreme court decision making. We posit that the decisions of state high courts are influenced by their judicial (the U.S. Supreme Court) and political (state elites or electorates) principals, as well as by more conventional factors. We test our theory by using a stratified random sample of state court of last resort decisions regarding challenged confessions from 1970 to 1991. Our analysis supports the hypothesized influence of federal courts on state supreme courts. That influence transcends most of the known determinants of decision making on the state supreme courts. We conclude that state supreme courts defer to their judicial principal but do not hesitate to use federalism to their advantage. In this area of the law, though, they do so without compromising Supreme Court precedent.

The federal nature of the American system of government is not the product of coincidence or chance but, rather, is rooted in the historical experiences of the United States. Suspicion of centralized power, a hallmark of colonial experience, gave rise to a system of government with a special concern for state sovereignty. One result of particular interest to students of the courts is the existence of individual state court systems, each operating independently but tied to the federal judiciary via the supremacy clause of the Constitution. When a question related solely to the interpretation and application of a state constitution or state statutory provision arises, according to the precepts of federalism, the federal judiciary is virtually silent. In these cases, the state courts of last resort reign supreme.1

When the issue is a matter of federal law or the application of the federal Constitution, however, the United States Supreme Court is formally the final arbiter, and state supreme courts are considered bound by the applicable rulings of the nation's highest tribunal. In fact, the Supreme Court, speaking through Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, made a strong statement to this effect in its decision in Michigan v. Long:

It is precisely because of this respect for state courts, and this desire to avoid advisory opinions, that we do not wish to continue to decide issues of state law that go beyond the opinion that we review, or to require state courts to reconsider cases to clarify the grounds of their decisions. Accordingly, when, as in this case, a state court decision fairly appears to rest primarily on federal law, or to be interwoven with the federal law, and when the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion, we will accept as the most reasonable explanation that the state court decided the case the way it did because it believed that federal law required it to do so.2

While this opinion may be interpreted as favoring a strong central government, it also provides state supreme courts with the opportunity to avoid review by resting their analysis on independent state grounds. We might expect, then, that state courts of last resort will take advantage of this invitation to use federalism to their own advantage, allowing them to decide cases incompatibly with the United States Supreme Court.

With this in mind, we attempt to further understand the decision making of state supreme courts. Because these courts are not only the heads of their own state court systems but also ostensibly members of the federal judicial system, we consider the influence of the United States Supreme Court in the explanation of state supreme court behavior. We draw on principal agency theory to explain the relationship between superiors (the United States Supreme Court) and inferiors (state supreme courts) in an empirical study of a sample of confession cases decided by state supreme courts between 1970 and 1991. …