The Most-Cited Federalist Papers

By Lupu, Ira C. | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Most-Cited Federalist Papers

Lupu, Ira C., Constitutional Commentary

In early 1998, the George Washington Law Review held a Symposium on "Textualism and the Constitution." At that event, Professor William Eskridge presented a paper entitled "Should the Supreme Court Read the Federalist Papers But Not Statutory Legislative History?"(1) The editors of that Review kindly invited me to prepare a response to Professor Eskridge's piece. In the course of research in preparation of that response, I unearthed a variety of heretofore unpublished data concerning patterns of citation to The Federalist Papers in the Supreme Court Reports. Much of that data--in particular, those portions which reveal the direction and rate of change in such citation practices over time--is published in that piece.(2) One aspect of the data unaddressed there, however, pertains to which of the Papers have received the most attention from the Justices.

This brief essay attempts to remedy that omission. In what follows, I list in ascending order the five Federalist Papers most frequently cited in opinions of the Supreme Court. Readers will no doubt have their own judgments as to which Papers are most deserving of citation, and their own predictions as to which are actually in the Top Five. I suspect that Federalist No. 10 (Madison) on the role of factions in the proposed regime and Federalist No. 78 (Hamilton) on judicial review are likely to make many of these reader-generated lists. Those who make these two guesses about the contents of the Top Five list will be half-right.

Before disclosing the winners, I offer a few preliminary words. First, as to methodology, I have chosen to treat one or more citations to a particular Paper in a given decision as singular for counting purposes. That is, repeated citations to a Paper within a given opinion do not change the count, and citations to the same Paper in other opinions in the same case do not change the count. The first of these moves seems easy to defend; that a given Justice cites a Paper five times rather than once within an opinion may well say more about the idiosyncracies of citation style than it does about the Paper's substantive influence. The limitation on multiple counting if other opinions in the same case also cite the Paper is based on the possibility that a citation from one Justice may provoke others to cite and discuss it as well. This distorting potential seems greatest in the case of Papers cited in non-unanimous (that is, internally controversial) decisions. My choice of a count simplifier is obviously open to question, and different choices might well produce a different outcome for the Top Five.

Second, it is worth reflecting on the significance of the data. A count of this sort may reinforce or counter received wisdom on which Papers have been most influential, at least among the Justices. The count may cast light on which Federalist Paper author has been most influential. In addition, the data serve to highlight historical trends in constitutional adjudication; issues which dominated in the nineteenth century have receded, others have come to rather recent prominence, and some are always with us.

The envelopes, please. In reverse order (that is, presented from fifth to first), the five most heavily cited Federalist Papers in the history of Supreme Court adjudication are:

FIFTH. Federalist No. 32 (Hamilton)(3)--cited in twenty-five decisions of the Supreme Court.(4) Federalist No. 32 is concerned with the power of state taxation. In the essay, one of a series on the subject, Publius analyzes concurrent state and federal power to tax. He makes efforts to reassure the States that their taxing powers are unimpaired by the proposed Constitution, except for its qualified prohibition in Article I, Section 10 on state-created "Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports."(5) Federalist No. 32 led all Papers in citations at the end of the nineteenth century, having appeared in eleven decisions by 1894; no other Paper had more than seven at the century's close. …

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