The Ideology of STATE SUPREME COURT CHIEF JUSTICES

Article excerpt

In 2003, Roy Moore, also known as the "Ten Commandments Judge," became the focus of extensive media attention for his efforts to keep a monument of the Biblical "Ten Commandments" erected in the rotunda of the state judicial building. The then-chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court refused to obey a district court order to remove the monument, which resulted in his dismissal. Highlights from the incident included peaceful protests in front of the judicial building, as well as a speech by a Moore-supporter who called the federal court that issued the order "an unelected, non-accountable, arrogant, imperialistic judiciary determined to shove their beliefs down our throats."1

Moore's dramatic behavior drew national attention to the judicial system and, in particular, state supreme courts.2 But despite scrutiny by the media, little is known about the leaders of these courts of last resort. Previous discussion of state supreme court justices has focused on the court as a whole, and has spoken to such democratic issues as representation and access.3 These compositional studies have assessed the extent to which method of judicial recruitment impacts the representative nature of these courts. Similarly, scholarship on the chief justices of state supreme courts has focused on recruitment and its impact on judicial behavior.4 Although these studies have contributed to a larger political dialogue regarding the democratic nature of the judiciary, a descriptive picture of the ideological tenor of the chief justices on American state supreme courts remains absent from the literature.

The example of Chief Justice Moore demonstrates the growing importance of state supreme court chief justices and the political aftermath these court leaders can spark. Newspapers articles about state supreme courts further suggest the chief justice position is essential for encouraging or discouraging interbranch relations.s Similarly, scholars have found that chief justices can build or destroy consensus within the court.6 Langer et al. argue that this consensus affects unanimity which, in turn, affects public confidence or congressional response.7 A more recent study demonstrates that the ideological tenor of chief justices influences the size of majority opinion coalitions on state supreme courts.8 Fundamentally, the chief justice has an integral role not only within the court but also in how the court is represented as an independent branch.

The important role of the chief justice is not limited to state supreme courts. There is a voluminous body of literature on the role of the United States Supreme Court chief justice, which has demonstrated that the chief justice's leadership style and skills, along with the powers afforded his position, have influenced many norms, decision making, opinion writing, and consensus.

For example, some scholars studying U.S. Supreme Court chief justices have demonstrated that the degree of consensus and conflict on the Court is influenced in part by the chief's leadership style and ability.9 Others have found that the chief justice can maximize his policy goals by assigning the majority opinion to the justice ideologically closest to him in cases where he is in the majority.10

In addition to shaping decisions and the decision-making process, scholars have found the chief justice also influences the institutional organization of the Court. Specifically, they have found that organizational goals, such as efficiency, expertise, and number of opinion assignments per justice, predict opinion assignments.11 Another important function of the chief justice is his ability to alter the size of majority opinion coalitions and keep fragile majorities in tact. Here too scholars have found the power to assign the majority opinion assists the chief in reaching this goal.12 The ability of the chief justice to influence the agenda has also been demonstrated by scholars.13

Fundamental differences

Clearly the role of ideology, whether that of U. …