Supreme Court picks cases with Congress in mind

NYU (US)—Past studies have found that Congress has little influence on Supreme Court rulings, but a new study by New York University researchers suggests legislative preference may affect the types of cases the Court chooses to hear.

The research, which examined the Rehnquist Court from 1987 to 2001, shows that the justices were less likely to hear cases involving constitutional challenges to liberal statutes from 1987 to 1994, when the House and the Senate were under Democratic control, than they were from 1995 to 2001, when Republicans had a majority in both chambers.

The study’s coauthors, Anna Harvey, a professor in NYU’s Department of Politics, and Barry Friedman, a professor in NYU’s School of Law, developed a model to estimate the probability that the high court would review a congressional statute, in order to determine if there was a selection bias in the cases it chose to hear.

Their findings indicate that the likelihood that the Rehnquist Court would review a liberal statute enacted between 1987 and 1994 increased by 123 percent after Congress became more conservative following the 1994 elections. The likelihood that the high court would review “landmark” liberal statutes increased by 500 percent after 1994, when Republicans gained control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since the 1950s.

Harvey and Friedman point out that the study has important implications for the question of whether the Court’s opinions are also influenced by congressional preferences.

“Our results may shed some light on the failure of most empirical studies to find any effects of congressional preferences on the Court’s final rulings on the merits,” the authors write.

Their findings suggest the Court is less likely to review cases involving constitutional challenges to congressional statutes when it will have to defer significantly to congressional preferences in its final decisions. Cases that could systematically demonstrate the effects of congressional constraint on the Court are likely then to be weeded out of the Court’s docket.

“Studies which fail to take into account the fact that the selection bias in the Court’s docket permits it to duck congressional trouble may miss the extent to which the Court is dependent on the political branches,” the researchers explain.

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