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The Authority of Supreme Court Precedent

Social Networks, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 16-30, January 2008

36 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2007 Last revised: 19 Aug 2008

James H. Fowler

UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences; UC San Diego School of Medicine

Sangick Jeon

Stanford University - Department of Political Science

Abstract

We construct the complete network of 30,288 majority opinions written by the U.S. Supreme Court and the cases they cite from 1754 to 2002 in the United States Reports. Data from this network demonstrates quantitatively the evolution of the norm of stare decisis in the 19th Century and a significant deviation from this norm by the activist Warren court. We further describe a method for creating authority scores using the network data to identify the most important Court precedents. This method yields rankings that conform closely to evaluations by legal experts, and even predicts which cases they will identify as important in the future. An analysis of these scores over time allows us to test several hypotheses about the rise and fall of precedent. We show that reversed cases tend to be much more important than other decisions, and the cases that overrule them quickly become and remain even more important as the reversed decisions decline. We also show that the Court is careful to ground overruling decisions in past precedent, and the care it exercises is increasing in the importance of the decision that is overruled. Finally, authority scores corroborate qualitative assessments of which issues and cases the Court prioritizes and how these change over time.

Suggested Citation

Fowler, James H. and Jeon, Sangick, The Authority of Supreme Court Precedent. Social Networks, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 16-30, January 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1008032

James H. Fowler (Contact Author)

UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
Code 0521
La Jolla, CA 92093-0521
United States

HOME PAGE: http://jhfowler.ucsd.edu

UC San Diego School of Medicine ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
MC 0507
La Jolla, CA 92093
United States

HOME PAGE: http://jhfowler.ucsd.edu

Sangick Jeon

Stanford University - Department of Political Science ( email )

616 Serra Street
Encina Hall West, Suite 100
Stanford, CA 94305
United States

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