The Supreme Court and the Protection of Minority Rights: An Empirical Examination of Racial Discrimination Cases

Article excerpt

This inquiry provides a basic assessment of the impact of three potential determinants of racial discrimination cases in the U.S. Supreme Court since 1954. The research design provides two improved methods of explicating this issue. First, the model allows for a comparison of basic Hamiltonian institutionalism (i.e., the bulwark thesis), majoritarianism, and attitudinalism in a single test, as opposed to previous studies that tended to examine only two theoretical approaches at a time. Second, the majoritarian approach is given more careful consideration through the use of theoretical and empirical evidence, which allows the subtleties of public opinion in this area to be assessed. The findings show some support for the basic bulwark prediction over majoritarianismdecisions fail to reflect majority opinion trends. The bulwark thesis fails to receive full support, however, since the ideologies of the Justices also display a significant influence on outcomes.


The assessment of the determinants of U.S. Supreme Court decisionmaking remains an intensely controversial aspect of judicial studies. Advocates of several broad approaches continue to debate which is the principal impetus of outcomes both in general and in specific legal fields.1 My inquiry offers one perspective to help untangle this controversy in the domain of racial discrimination cases in the post-Brown v. Board of Education (1954) period. Although the findings will not end the long-standing debate over what determines decisional outcomes, they do provide a clarified picture of the racial discrimination subfield and a suggestion for studying other specialized areas.

My basic approach and specific research design are premised on the assertion that a clear understanding of decisionmaking is obscured by previous studies (both general and particularized) that tend to inflate the influence of majority preferences (thus discrediting institutionalism to an unwarranted extent) and also fail to provide a full account by focusing only on two competing explanations at a time. The strategy for systematically interpreting outcomes in this area rests on two novel tactics. The first tactic is to expand consideration of the potential role played by majority opinion. (I furnish a complete description and justification of this approach later.) This tactic offers an improved test of the majoritarian thesis. The second approach of this inquiry allows for the explication of three potential determinants of decisionsthe rules and structure of the institution itself, majority public preference, and the ideological predilections of the Justices. It thus provides a core comparison of these broad categories rather bluntly defined, as opposed to an exhaustive assessment of all potentially meaningful determinants. Since such a basic measure of outcomes in this field has yet to be undertaken, however, this is a necessary first step.

The results of this investigation of constitutional challenges to racial discrimination suggest that even though the Supreme Court is insulated from majority preferences, its decisions are influenced by Justices' ideological leanings. More specifically, although white Americans (who in this area represent the majority, as opposed to the African American minority) are much more amenable to government action designed to end blatantly discriminatory laws and practices (de jure discrimination) than to the eradication of entrenched patterns of inequity (de facto discrimination), this distinction is not reflected in the decision record. Whether a case represents a challenge to de jure or de facto discrimination does not significantly influence its outcome. Furthermore, fluctuations in the general ideological temper of the nation also fail to affect rulings. However, although distancing itself from majority influences, the Court is not consistently protective of minority rights. The ideological composition of the Court displays a significant influence on verdicts; thus, when the Court is relatively more conservative, cases are less likely to be decided in the minority interest. …


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