Courts are political, news at 11
Given all the hubbub over this week's health-care ruling, and subsequent debate over what motivates judges to embrace one reading of the Constitution over another, it's worth noting that there's a pretty solid political science literature on this, one which mainly suggests that judges' politics has a major influence on their rulings.
This idea is hardly new, originating in the early part of the 20th century with the legal realism movement. But social scientists (and computers) have gotten a lot better at crunching numbers since then, allowing for a lot of recent quantitative research on the subject, an effort some call the "New Legal Realism". The results are roughly what you'd expect. Republican and Democratic appointees rule differently on issues that divide on party lines. Panels with judges of both parties issue more moderate rulings than those with judges of just one party. On some issues, like affirmative action, not even the presence of different-minded colleagues can trump a judge's political convictions in making a ruling.
Studies of the Supreme Court reach a similar conclusion. The political scientists Jeffrey Segal and Harold Spaeth formulated what they call an "attitudinal" model of the court, which holds that the "attitudes" (political beliefs, personal feelings, etc.) of justices are the most important determinants of rulings. The model fits the data quite well, with one study of Segal and Spaeth's showing justices voting their personal views over 90 percent of the time.
So as crass as it sounds, the best way to know how the Supreme Court is going to rule is to figure out what Anthony Kennedy thinks about health-care reform.
Photo credit: Damian Dovarganes/AP
Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.
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