Extreme Dissensus: Explaining Plurality Decisions on the United States Supreme Court

32 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2009 Last revised: 8 Jun 2010

Pamela C. Corley

Vanderbilt University

Udi Sommer

Columbia University - Department of Political Science; Tel Aviv University

Amy Steigerwalt

Georgia State University

Artemus Ward

Northern Illinois University

Date Written: June 7, 2010

Abstract

Plurality decisions on the Supreme Court represent extreme dissensus. In those cases, no clear majority is formed for any one controlling rationale for the final disposition. Such decisions are important to understand both because they result in the erosion of the Court’s credibility and authority as a source of legal leadership, and because they teach us broader lessons about judicial decision making. In this paper we ask: what causes the Court to issue an opinion which lacks precedential value? We propose and test three theories to explain plurality decisions - a social consensus account, a “hard” case theory, and an explanation based on the “collegial game.” Hypotheses are tested based on all orally argued cases during the 1953-2006 terms. We find that splintering is more likely when the Court reviews contentious or politically salient questions, in constitutional cases, and when the median justice writes the opinion. When the Chief Justice assigns the opinion, plurality decisions are less likely. We discuss our findings in light of existing theories of judicial decision making and examine how our new understanding of plurality opinions sheds light on decision making on the Court more generally.

Keywords: Plurality Opinions, US Supreme Court

Suggested Citation

Corley, Pamela C. and Sommer, Udi and Steigerwalt, Amy and Ward, Artemus, Extreme Dissensus: Explaining Plurality Decisions on the United States Supreme Court (June 7, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1433742 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1433742

Pamela C. Corley (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University ( email )

2301 Vanderbilt Place
Nashville, TN 37240
United States

Udi Sommer

Columbia University - Department of Political Science ( email )

7th Floor, International Affairs Bldg.
420 W. 118th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States

Tel Aviv University ( email )

Ramat Aviv
Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv, Israel 62486
Israel
9176226009 (Phone)

Amy Steigerwalt

Georgia State University ( email )

38 Peachtree Center Ave
Suite 1005
Atlanta, GA 30302
United States

Artemus Ward

Northern Illinois University ( email )

Department of Political Science
DeKalb, IL 60115
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.niu.edu/polisci/faculty/profiles/ward/

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