Adding Pieces to the Puzzle

By Salokar, Rebecca Mae | Judicature, January/February 2004 | Go to article overview

Adding Pieces to the Puzzle


Salokar, Rebecca Mae, Judicature


Adding pieces to the puzzle Popular Justice: Presidential Prestige and Executive Success in the Supreme Court, by Jeff Yates. State University of New York Press. 2002. 131 pages. $54.50. $17.95 (paperback).

Understanding how justices of the U.S. Supreme Court make decisions has driven the research agendas of many political scientists and legal scholars. Like a puzzle, each theory that evolves contributes a bit more to our understanding of how the nine justices, sitting behind the closed doors of the Court's conference room, come to their decisions. From the legal model of decision making to the attitudinal and strategic models, much of this research has been focused on the institution-its rules, procedures, written opinions and the proclivities of its players, the justices themselves. Other studies have taken a slightly different tack by examining the external actors that impact the Court's agenda as well as the broader political environment in which the Court must operate. Popular Justice successfully straddles these two research traditions, and by doing so author Jeff Yates has added several pieces to the puzzle of Supreme Court decision making.

Popular Justice examines the relationship between the executive branch and the Supreme Court. The importance of the United States government's legal interests before the Supreme Court has long been recognized by the scholarly community. Previous studies have explored how the Court treats issues of presidential power, examined the process by which the executive branch determines which cases to bring to the Court, and measured the success of the administration when it appears before the Court both as a party and as an amicus. Efforts to contextualize this interbranch relationship have generated a wealth of research that, as Yates correctly notes, has largely been the result of qualitative methods and descriptive analysis. Starting from the theoretical groundwork laid by a generation of scholars before him, Yates advances our knowledge base by using his empirical skills to more fully explain the relationship between the Supreme Court and the presidency.

Reasons for success

A compact and highly-readable text, Popular Justice is organized around a series of empirical models designed to test the nature of the judicial-executive relationship. The introductory chapter provides a quick outline of the book's organization and thesis. From previous research we know that the executive branch enjoys a significant degree of success in litigation before the Supreme Court; Yates asks, "Why?" He hypothesizes that the justices might just be persuaded by the popularity of the president and the president's policy preferences, and points to the research foundations for such a premise in Chapter 2. Yates does not suggest that executive prestige and policies alone will determine judicial outcomes, but argues that a president's stature in the eyes of the justices is one of several variables that can influence judicial decision making in cases impacting presidential power.

The balance of the second chapter justifies the inclusion of additional variables that have been identified as important factors in judicial and presidential politics. These include the ideology of the justices (as suggested by the attitudinal theory of decision making); the litigation position of the government in Court as petitioner or respondent; and consideration of the "Two Presidencies" theory, which suggests that the executive branch may be granted more latitude in foreign policy decisions than in domestic matters.

In the following three chapters, three distinct, theory-driven multivariate models are constructed to examine the judicial-executive relationship. …

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