On the Perils of Drawing Inferences about Supreme Court Justices from Their First Few Years of Service

By Epstein, Lee; Quinn, Kevin et al. | Judicature, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

On the Perils of Drawing Inferences about Supreme Court Justices from Their First Few Years of Service


Epstein, Lee, Quinn, Kevin, Martin, Andrew D., Segal, Jeffrey A., Judicature


Even before the start of their second year in office, commentators were already reading the tea leaves on Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and John G. Roberts, Jr. According to the prominent legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, the two new justices "were every bit as conservative as conservatives had hoped and progressives had feared. [Their] willingness to overrule decades-old precedents certainly gives a sense that major changes are likely ahead in constitutional law in the years to come.'" Chemerinsky was hardly alone; similar forecasts appeared on the editorial pages of newspapers as ideological disparate as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of blogs across the country.

Forecasting of this sort-a veritable cottage industry each time a new justice completes a term or two of service-may seem harmless enough and sufficiently divorced from the concerns of empirical legal studies to ignore. Nonetheless, the entire enterprise rests on a strong empirical assumption, which, in fact, has important implications for systematic scholarship: that one can draw high-quality inferences about the justices' long-term ideological tendencies from their first few terms in office.

Is this a plausible assumption? Unfortunately, and despite decades of study, we cannot offer a conclusive answer. To some, most notably Hagle, reliance on initial voting records to predict future behavior borders on the absurd.2 Most justices, he empirically demonstrated, manifest unstable behavior in their "freshman" year relative to the balance of their career. To other scholars, most recently Shipan, predictions based on the first term are not particularly troubling.3 The instability identified by Hagle, they say, appears insufficiently widespread to be "considered a general phenomenon."4 In between comes work by Wood et al., which found that roughly half the justices under analysis experienced "acclimation" effects.5

In what follows, we hope to bring a fresh eye to this seemingly age-old but nonetheless on-going debate.6 Drawing on methodological strategies that we used to examine ideological drift on the Supreme Court,7 we first contemplate the literature's primary concern: to what extent do new justices evince different or unstable behavior in their first year relative to all others? Or, to frame it in more contemporary terms, to what extent can we reach high-quality inferences about the justices' long-term ideological preferences based on oneyear's-the first-year's-worth of observations?

Finding that Hagle and others in his camp have the better case-all but 4 of the 26 justices we investigated exhibited statistically significant ideological drift from their initial preferences-we turn to questions of substantive importance. Specifically, we demonstrate that movement away from first-year ideal points occasionally manifests itself in consequential doctrinal change-so consequential that a vote in favor of, say, restricting privacy rights or permitting prayer in school in the first term might translate into a vote in opposition before the justice concludes his or her first decade of service. These findings, compatible with our previous work documenting extensive ideological movement on the part of Court members throughout their careers,8 continue to demonstrate that the ideological boxes into which policy makers, scholars, and lawyers place justices at the time of their appointment are not so tightly sealed.

Inferring future behavior

Inferring future behavior from a justice's first few years in office hardly began with John Roberts and Samuel Alito; in fact, the legal historian George L. Haskins supplies compelling evidence that the practice dates nearly as far back as the Court itself.9 Surely, though, the most (in) famous modern-day example came after Harry A. Blackmun's first year of service. The Minneapolis-born Blackmun was so closely aligned with his boyhood friend, the conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger, that commentators of the day tagged him a "Minnesota Twin. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

On the Perils of Drawing Inferences about Supreme Court Justices from Their First Few Years of Service
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.