Academic journal article Law & Society Review

The Influence of Congressional Preferences on Legislative Overrides of Supreme Court Decisions

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

The Influence of Congressional Preferences on Legislative Overrides of Supreme Court Decisions

Article excerpt

The separation of powers (SOP)-how the different branches of government collaborate in the making and implementing of public policy-represents a vital aspect of American politics. One SOP relationship garnering substantial attention concerns the interactions between the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court. Scholars have examined the dealings between these institutions in multiple ways, including the extent to which Congress influences Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Clark 2011; Gely and Spiller 1990; Hansford and Damore 2000; Harvey and Friedman 2009; Owens 2010; Sala and Spriggs 2004; Segal 1997; Spiller and Gely 1992), whether the Court constrains congressional decisionmaking (e.g., Martin 2001), and the circumstances under which Congress legislatively overrides Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Blackstone 2013; Eskridge 1991a; Hausegger and Baum 1999; Hettinger and Zorn 2005; Ignagni and Meernik 1994; Ignagni, Meernik, and King 1998). Collectively, the literature uncovers a rich and complex interdependency between these two important American political institutions.

A core element of SOP studies is a spatial model of the policy process, in which political actors make decisions as a function of their preferences over the existing status quo and alternatives to it, as well as the preferences of other relevant politicians. Researchers thus assume that preferences over outcomes are a fundamental part of the policy-making process. Of particular interest to us, previous studies either (1) apply theoretical models that assume legislators respond to Court decisions based on their preferences over them (e.g., Gely and Spiller 1990; Segal 1997) or (2) explicitly hypothesize that ideological disagreement with Court decisions causes Congress to pass legislation overriding them (Eskridge 1991a, 1991b; Hettinger and Zorn 2005; Ignagni, Meernik, and King 1998; Staudt, Lindstadt, and O'Connor 2007). This perspective seems reasonable in light of the centrality of policy preferences in contemporary explanations of congressional decisionmaking (Aldrich and Rohde 2000; Cox and McCubbins 2005, 2007; Krehbiel 1991, 1998). Indeed, the congressional literature offers convincing empirical evidence that ideology plays a key role in explaining Members' votes on bills and the passage of legislation (e.g., Poole and Rosenthal 2007). Yet, the literature examining federal legislation overriding Court decisions uncovers no systematic evidence they result from Congress' preferences regarding them.

To be fair, existing studies illustrate that preferences play a role in explaining some of Congress' interactions with the Court. One area in which policy preferences matter is in sponsorship (but not passage) of court-curbing bills, or bills aimed at limiting judicial power (Clark 2011; Curry 2007). Similarly, policy preferences influence the budget allocated to the Supreme Court, with Congress using the budget to signal its approval or disapproval of the Court's decisions (Toma 1991). Additionally, Martin (2001) shows that tire House and Senate consider the political preferences of both the other chamber and the Supreme Court when voting on civil rights legislation. However, research has not uncovered a link between legislative preferences and the passage of court-curbing bills (Chutkow 2008; Curry 2007). Most relevant for this study, there is only anecdotal (Eskridge 1991a, 1991b) and quantitative case study (Clark and McGuire 1996)1 evidence that legislative preferences influence the passage of legislation that overrides specific Supreme Court decisions.

We focus our study on this latter relationship and seek to address the following empirical issue: The congressional literature shows that the passage of legislation results from legislative preferences, but there is no systematic empirical evidence that override legislation occurs when legislative actors disagree with Court decisions. Our first objective is therefore to show empirically that Congress passes override legislation based on its preferences regarding the Court's decisions. …

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