Judicial Capacity and the Substance of Constitutional Law

39 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2012 Last revised: 18 Feb 2014

See all articles by Andrew Coan

Andrew Coan

University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law

Date Written: September 21, 2012


Courts can decide only a small fraction of constitutional issues generated by the American government. This is widely acknowledged. But why do courts have such limited capacity? And how does this limitation affect the substance of constitutional law? This paper advances a twofold thesis. First, constraints on judicial capacity derive from a combination of the hierarchical structure of the judiciary and broadly held judicial norms. Second, in certain important constitutional domains, these constraints create strong pressure on courts to adopt hard-edged categorical rules, defer to the political process, or both. The argument is mostly positive but has significant normative implications. In particular, the constraints of judicial capacity suggest a new and previously unexplored justification for courts to defer many constitutional questions to the political process. Capacity constraints also help to explain the reluctance of courts to challenge political majorities, diminishing though not eliminating the countermajoritarian difficulty. For these reasons and others, judicial capacity deserves a central place on the agenda of constitutional theory.

Keywords: Judicial Capacity, Constitutional Law, Courts, Judicial Decision-Making, Judicial Politics

JEL Classification: K41

Suggested Citation

Coan, Andrew, Judicial Capacity and the Substance of Constitutional Law (September 21, 2012). 122 Yale Law Journal 422, Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1190, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2000735

Andrew Coan (Contact Author)

University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210176
Tucson, AZ 85721-0176
United States

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