Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Measuring Case Salience in State Courts of Last Resort

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Measuring Case Salience in State Courts of Last Resort

Article excerpt


Scholars recognize that both citizens and elites may alter their behavior in response to salient stimuli. Epstein and Segal's (2000) measure of salience for the United States Supreme Court provided a valid and reproducible way to assess the political salience of cases. No comparable measure exists for state high courts. The authors introduce a measure of case salience for state supreme courts that is comprehensive and similar to the Epstein-Segal measure. We discuss the utility of this measure, compare it to several alternatives, provide descriptive statistics, and discuss the relationship between case salience and judicial behavior in state supreme courts.


salience, state courts, media, judicial decision making

In the past two decades, research on the behavior and policy implications of state supreme courts has advanced significantly. Much like studies of the federal courts, this literature has benefited from the development of measures and data sources amenable to empirical testing. Ideology scores for state supreme court justices (Brace, Langer, and Hall 2000) and databases such as the Brace- Hall State Supreme Court Data Archive (SSCDA) and Langer's Natural Court Database (NCD) are now available for scholars interested in state supreme courts.1 These advances have been vital in addressing judicial behavior in the states, but data and measurements needed to answer some queries about state supreme courts are not yet available. Among these is a valid and replicable measure of case salience in state supreme courts. In this article, we provide such a measure, describe the composition of our data, and offer an early assessment of its effect on judicial behavior in the American states. We also explore its utility for future research.

Scholars have long suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court approaches salient cases differently than others (Ulmer 1970; Rohde 1972). Decisions in these cases are highly visible and can have important political or legal effects. Awareness of these cases' importance may also influence judicial behavior. Justices might, for example, act strategically to preserve institutional legitimacy when under public scrutiny. Conversely, salient cases may prompt attitudinal voting if judges see them as opportunities to establish their policy preferences as legal precedents (Unah and Hancock 2006; M. W. Giles, Blackstone, and Vining 2008). Justices of state supreme courts may also consider institutional legitimacy (Gibson 2008), and most occasionally face the electorate. Hall and Brace (1989) identified the institutional context of state supreme court justices as an influence on their output, with reelection concerns affecting their behavior.

Following Epstein and Segal (2000) and the study of salience on the U.S. Supreme Court, we offer a measure of case salience applicable to state supreme courts. Like our predecessors, we provide a media-based metric of case salience. We acknowledge that this score is best described as a measure of political rather than legal salience (see Maltzman and Wahlbeck 2003) but do not believe that undermines its utility for studies of judicial behavior. We describe the creation of this measure and apply it to the issues of opinion assignment and consensus often associated with case salience.

Case Salience in the Literature on the U.S. Supreme Court

The characteristics of cases influence judicial outcomes, whether via case facts (Brace and Hall 1997), the litigants involved (Sheehan, Mishler, and Songer 1992), the statutory or constitutional nature of the question at hand (Spriggs and Hansford 2001), or other attributes. Case salience is another important trait identified by judicial scholars. The political importance of particular issues is inarguable. Salience is recognized as influential in both the actions of political elites (Mayhew 1974) and public evaluations of them (Edwards, Mitchell, and Welch 1995). …

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