The Conditional Effects of Ideology and Institutional Structure on Judicial Voting in State Supreme Courts


Two enormously influential perspectives on courts offer fundamentally different predictions about court outcomes and the effects of judge ideology on those outcomes. Well-known to political scientists studying courts, the ideological voting (IV) literature argues that judge ideology is a strong predictor of court outcomes and that those outcomes should be proximate to the policy preferences of courts. Less known to political scientists but highly influential, the law and economics perspective (LE) focuses on settlement behavior of litigants who try to minimize costs and thus estimate likely outcomes in court, and settle simpler cases pre-trial. In this case selection process litigants respond to cues that signal likely outcomes with the result that only complex, less predictable cases make it to trial leading to win-rates that coalesce at fifty percent for plaintiffs or defendants. From this perspective, litigant strategies cancel out the effects of judge ideology and court outcomes do not correspond to judges’ ideological preferences. We reconcile these perspectives by examining tort cases in state supreme courts from 1995 through 1998. The contrasting perspectives stem from the fundamental institutional processes upon which each perspective is based. The LE perspective dominates in states without lower appellate courts (LAC) where process of appeal in these state supreme courts is litigant-driven, with win-rates hovering at fifty percent and deviations from that norm accounted for by forces influencing litigant uncertainty. The ideological voting predicted by the IV literature occurs primarily in the context of state supreme court strategic reversals of LAC decisions---a process commensurate that operating with the U.S. Supreme Court. When it comes to judicial outcomes, institutional structure is a critical element shaping the influence of litigant strategy and judge ideology.


Comparative and Foreign Law | Courts | Economics | Law and Politics | Public Law and Legal Theory | State and Local Government Law | Torts

Date of this Version

October 2006