Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

A Conditional Model of Opinion Assignment on the Supreme Court

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

A Conditional Model of Opinion Assignment on the Supreme Court

Article excerpt

The chief justice's power to assign the majority opinion on the U.S. Supreme Court provides an indispensable agenda-setting tool for the chief. Scholars disagree, however, on what factors guide the chief's use of his assignment powers. Some suggest that the chief assigns cases with an eye to securing his ideological goals, while others contend that the chief prefers to ensure the efficient and harmonious operation of the Court. Rather than assuming that the chief is a single-minder seeker of either ideology or efficiency, we explore the possibility that the chief is motivated by multiple goals. In particular, we evaluate the effects of policy goals and organizational needs on the chief's assignment decisions, and specify the conditions under which different goals appear to be paramount to the chief. Using a random-effects probit model, we examine the assignment decisions of Chief Justices Earl Warren, Warren Burger, and William Rehnquist between the 1953 and 1990 terms, and find support for a conditional model of assignment decisions.

The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is perennially depicted as the first among equals (Davis 1990; Murphy 1964; Schwartz 1983; Spaeth 1984; Ulmer 1970). Yet he holds one crucial advantage over his colleagues: the power to assign the majority opinion when he votes with the majority of the Court at the initial conference on a case's merits. Such power is consequential for two reasons. First, opinion assignments affect the policy articulated in Court rulings. Although bargaining and accommodation are central to the Grafting of Court opinions, (Epstein and Knight 1998; Maltzman, Spriggs, and Wahlbeck 2000), the author is the Court's agenda setter and, therefore, possesses a unique ability to shape the law.1 second, assignment decisions affect the functioning of the Court as an organization-shaping the Court's ability to complete its work, enhancing the legitimacy of its opinions, and promoting harmony on the bench (Maltzman and Wahlbeck 1996, Schwartz 1996, Epstein and Knight 1998).

Previous research on the assignment process has established empirical support both for the impact of policy preferences and the Court's organizational needs (Rohde 1972; Brenner and Palmer 1988), but it has left untested the theoretical relationship of policy preferences and organizational needs. There are two distinct ways of conceptualizing the role played by the Court's organizational needs. According to a neo-institutional view of the opinion assignment process, policy motivations are paramount but are constrained by norms compelling the chief to tend to the Courts organizational needs (Maltzman and Wahlbeck 1996). Organizational factors are little more than a constraint on the chief's ability to advance his policy goals.

In contrast, the significant influence attributed to organizational factors might indicate that the chief justice pursues goals beyond his policy preferences. Although judicial scholars have recently ascribed primacy to policy goals, they do not always view that as the only goal. For example, when writing about leadership on the Supreme Court, Danelski (1968) argued that chief justices regularly strive to lead the institution in such a way that they minimize conflict among the justices and ensure the viability of the Court as a system. This viewpoint is consistent with Baum (1997), who argues that justices pursue a number of goals-not simply policy goals.

In addition to providing the first test of these distinct conceptions of the role of organizational factors, we study assignment practices over nearly 40 years of Supreme Court history and across the stewardship of three chief justices. Most work on opinion assignment has been limited to a single chief (e.g., Maltzman and Wahlbeck 1996; Maltzman, Spriggs, and Wahlbeck 2000). Our results suggest the limits of mono-causal explanations of Court behavior, highlighting the relevance of the chief's multiple goals in shaping his strategies on the bench. …

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