Economic Trends and Judicial Outcomes: A Macrotheory of the Court

41 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2010  

Thomas J. Brennan

Harvard Law School

Lee Epstein

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Nancy C. Staudt

Washington University Law School

Date Written: 2009

Abstract

In this symposium essay, we investigate the effect of economic conditions on the voting behavior of U.S. Supreme Court Justices. We theorize that Justices are akin to voters in political elections; specifically, we posit that the Justices will view short-term and relatively minor economic downturns - recessions - as attributable to the failures of elected officials, but will consider long-term and extreme economic contractions - depressions - as the result of exogenous shocks largely beyond the control of the government. Accordingly, we predict two patterns of behavior in economic-related cases that come before the Court: (1) in typical times, when the economy cycles through both recessionary and prosperous periods, the Justices will punish the elected branches of government when the economy contracts by voting less frequently for the government; and (2) in atypical times, when the economy moves into a period of deep depression, the Justices will work with the other branches of government by voting more frequently for the government. We test our hypotheses through statistical analysis of taxation opinions rendered by the Supreme Court during the period from 1913 to 1929 (a relatively normal period) and the period from 1930 to 1940 (the Great Depression). We find broad support for our hypothesis in the data we analyze, and we verify that our results are robust to a change in the measure of the economic condition as well as to a change in the specification of the regression model. We conclude that U.S. Supreme Court Justices exhibit voting patterns similar to voters in political elections when it comes to the economy.

Keywords: Judicial Decisionmaking, Courts, Empirical Studies, Tax Decisions

JEL Classification: K20, K29

Suggested Citation

Brennan, Thomas J. and Epstein, Lee and Staudt, Nancy C., Economic Trends and Judicial Outcomes: A Macrotheory of the Court (2009). Duke Law Journal, Vol. 58, p. 1192, 2009; Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 10-14. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1632918

Thomas J. Brennan (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1557 Massachusetts Ave
6 Ever
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-3141 (Phone)

Lee Epstein

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

HOME PAGE: http://epstein.wustl.edu

Nancy Christine Staudt

Washington University Law School ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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