The Dynamics of Issue Attention on the United States Supreme Court
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Throughout history, the United States Supreme Court has served as a major player in shaping the character and direction of public policy through the decisions it hands down. The issues that have garnered the Court’s attention have also changed over time, suggesting that the type of cases that receive certiorari fluctuate according to judicial preferences. Most research on certiorari has highlighted the importance of this process for understanding judicial decision-making, especially in regards to which cases are selected for review. But, we know less about the importance of issues in the agenda-setting process, and why issues, not specific cases, explain agenda-setting. This project brings together a theoretical framework that focuses on the influence of macro-level considerations on certiorari with a methodological emphasis on explaining dynamic agenda-setting. The macro-political theory of agenda setting produces three predictions about the dynamics of issue attention on the Supreme Court. First, the Supreme Court’s issue attention should shift toward policy domains over which Republicans exert greater issue ownership as the membership of the Court becomes more conservative, and, conversely, the Court should pay greater attention to policy domains over which Democrats have stronger issue ownership as the Court becomes more liberal. Second, the Court’s issue attention should follow public perceptions of problems in the political, economic, or social environment, leading the Court to take more cases in issue areas where the American people identify important public problems. Finally, the Court’s issue agenda should respond to changes in the political, economic and social environment that produce changes in the volume of litigation activity in particular policy domains, influencing the composition of the set of cases from which the Court constructs its docket and, therefore, its issue agenda. Another contribution of this dissertation is the introduction of compositional dependent variable models to judicial politics. This methodology examines the trade-off relationships that shape the Supreme Court’s agenda over time, with the underlying theory that the composition of the agenda reflects the relative importance of the Court’s partisan priorities. Using this approach, the data indicate that the partisan composition of the Court alters the policy preferences represented on the judicial agenda and that there are trade-off relationships that have been largely masked by exploring the ebb and flow of issue attention across different issue areas separately. The results indicate that issue attention by the U.S. Supreme Court is not merely the result of the incidental aggregation of the policy domains in which individual cases are situated. The Court’s attention to different issues is systematically associated with macro-political dynamics in the ideological orientations of the Court’s members and the political environment. This mirrors patterns of aggregate issue attention in the elected branches of national government and highlight a political economy of judicial issue attention. Further, the data indicate that partisanship and ideology have differential effects on the types of issues the justices place on their agenda, indicating that the related concepts need to be considered independently in more research in judicial politics.
Merrill, Alison Higgins (2018). The Dynamics of Issue Attention on the United States Supreme Court. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from