Academic journal article Law & Society Review

The Impact of Supreme Court Activity on the Judicial Agenda

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

The Impact of Supreme Court Activity on the Judicial Agenda

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

What influence does Supreme Court activity have on the issues that the lower federal courts address? While scholars have sought to understand whether lower courts comply with the edicts handed down by the Court on a particular issue (e.g., Cameron, Segal, 8c Songer 2000; Kastellec 2007; Lax 2003; Lindquist, Haire, 8c Songer 2007), research has rarely examined how the Court's decisions shape the very issues addressed in the lower federal courts. If the Court's decisions influence the agenda of the federal courts, then the Court shapes both policy and lower court opportunities for compliance with the Court's preferences on that policy.

On this question, two separate perspectives provide divergent expectations. The conventional legal perspective suggests that the Court decides cases in order to resolve unsettled areas of law. In this view, Supreme Court decisions lead to fewer subsequent disputes within an issue area after the Court addresses that issue (Casper & Posner 1974; Friedman 1967). Alternadvely, recent research on interest group influence on the judicial agenda proposes a different view. This interest group perspective suggests the Supreme Court actually encourages additional litigation through signals to litigants (Baird 2004, 2007; Baird 8c Jacobi 2009b). Signals from the Court are received by litigants, who bring or support cases that percolate up through the judicial hierarchy, eventually leading to temporary increases in attention to issue areas the Court has recently addressed. Thus, these two perspectives provide divergent expectations for what happens in the federal courts after the Supreme Court acts.

The goal of this article is to parse these theories of the Supreme Court's agenda control and to determine what happens to the lower federal courts' agendas after Supreme Court decisions. Utilizing filings on case terminations from the Administrative Office (AO) of the Federal Courts, the published opinions of federal courts of appeals and district courts, and supervised machine learning methods for text classification, I present a comprehensive and extended portrait of issue attention in the federal courts, as well as the Supreme Court's role in determining it. In accord with the legal perspective, I find evidence in both trial and appellate courts that Supreme Court attention to policy areas subsequently leads to feioer cases being heard and decided in those policy areas in the lower courts. Yet I also find evidence of additional interest group attention, and additional published opinions, in lower federal courts in issue areas after the Supreme Court addresses that issue.

Taken together, these findings indicate that the Supreme Court exerts considerable control over the agenda of the federal courts, a critical power in the formation of public policy. In so finding, this research has important implications for our understanding of issue attention relationships within the judicial hierarchy, the broad dynamics of the federal judicial agenda, and the strategies of litigants and interest groups. The Court's attention shifts the very participation of certain actors seeking to influence public policy in the federal courts, as issue areas go from being characterized by broad-based litigation to being characterized by less litigation, but more sophisticated participants. While potential litigants- concerned generally with the outcome of their individual cases- gain clarity from Supreme Court decisions on their probability of success, and are therefore less likely to require the courts (Priest 8c Klein 1984), interest groups-concerned primarily with public policy-respond to Supreme Court decisions on an issue by devoting additional attention to that same issue. At the juncture of these dynamics, Supreme Court attention shifts the issue attention of the federal courts, leading to important and understudied implications for studies of hierarchical relationships. …

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