This article examines state supreme court implementation of Supreme Court precedent when deciding cases challenging state legislation. While previous research provides a wealth of insight into how state contextual and institutional features constrain state court decisionmaking and how lower courts respond to Supreme Court precedent, very little research explicitly examines state court decisionmaking when both constraints are present. By integrating the findings of previous research, I develop and test hypotheses about the effect of these different actors on state court decisionmaking. The results show that state courts are indeed constrained by both state and federal actors. The results also suggest that there may be instances where policies are so salient to both state actors and to the U.S. Supreme Court that the influence of the state court's own policy preferences may be minimal. The findings provide important evidence about the importance of competing constraints on state supreme court decisionmaking.
For decades, scholars have been interested in studying the implementation of U.S. Supreme Court decisions by judges on lower courts.1 Most research concludes that the possibility of review by the Supreme Court effectively constrains lower court decisionmaking. This research typically examines decisionmaking on the United States Courts of Appeals. Along side this sizable literature has grown an equally large and impressive body of work examining the state-level institutional and contextual constraints on state supreme court judges.2 This work finds that state institutional and contextual features affect decisionmaking on the state high courts in interesting and often complex ways.
Surprisingly, little research attempts to combine these two lines of work to examine decisionmaking on state supreme courts when both constraints are present-constraints from the U.S. Supreme Court in the way of precedent and its ability to review and reject state court decisions, and constraints from state actors who may rewrite legislation and, often, remove a judge from office. The one project that attempts to capture both levels of constraint looks at state court decisions on abortion following Roe v. Wade (Brace, Hall, and Langer 2000). Their research finds that state court decisionmaking is affected by the state-level environment, but only to the extent that the judges' fates are tied to that environment. However, they also find that U.S. Supreme Court precedent has no effect on state court decisionmaking (Brace, Hall, Langer 2000). From this single study, can we conclude that Supreme Court precedent is meaningless to the decisionmaking among state court judges? Or, is it possible that constraints from the Supreme Court as well as from within the state weigh upon the decisionmaking of state court judges? If so, which weighs more heavily? These are the questions addressed in this work.
Recent research provides us with considerable leverage on these questions. First, it is generally accepted that judges are political actors with policy preferences that they would prefer to see enacted into law (Brace, Hall, Langer 2000; Epstein and Knight f 998; Langer 2002, Segal and Spaeth 2002). Justices on the United States Supreme Court have wide latitude to act upon their sincere preferences due to the insularity and independence they enjoy. Judges on lower courts have considerably less freedom to act upon their sincere preferences. First, most state court judges do not serve for life. Thus, the institutional rules for the selection and retention of judges limits, to varying degrees, the institutional independence of state supreme court judges from other state political actors (Brace and Hall 1995, 1997; Brace, Hall, and Langer 2000; Canon and Johnson 1999; Epstein, Knight and Shvetsova 2002; Langer 2002). Moreover, the decisions of both state and federal judges are subject to review by the Supreme Court, and judges do not like to see their decisions overturned (Baum 1976, 1978; Benesh and Reddick 2002; Canon and Johnson 1999; Songer, Segal and Cameron 1994). …