The Supreme Court's Declining Plenary Docket: A Membership-Based Explanation
Constitutional Commentary, Forthcoming
12 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2009
Date Written: September 21, 2009
More than a dozen hypotheses have been proposed to explain the startling decline in the Supreme Court's plenary docket, which has puzzled scholars and commentators. Using a unique dataset containing the votes of every Supreme Court Justice that served on the Court between 1986 and 1993, this paper develops support for the hypothesis that changes in the Court’s membership have contributed to the decline in the Supreme Court’s plenary docket. The data demonstrate that for every Justice appointed from the October 1986 Term through the October 1993 Term, the newly-appointed Justice voted to grant certiorari less often than his or her predecessor. In fact, the average Justice appointed between 1986 and 1993 voted to grant certiorari 46.2 fewer times per Term than his or her predecessor.
The substitution of Justice Ginsburg for Justice White had the greatest significance. Justice White voted to grant plenary review a prodigious 215.6 times per Term, on average, between 1986 and 1993. Meanwhile, Justice Ginsburg voted to grant plenary review during the October 1993 Term only 63 times, or 29.2% as often as her predecessor. The data and figures in this commentary demonstrate that personnel changes have had an effect on the decline in the Supreme Court’s plenary docket.
Keywords: Supreme Court, plenary docket
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