Standing the Test of Time: The Breadth of Majority Coalitions and the Fate of U.S. Supreme Court Precedents

25 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2012

See all articles by Stuart Minor Benjamin

Stuart Minor Benjamin

Duke University School of Law; Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative

Bruce A. Desmarais

Pennsylvania State University

Date Written: September 17, 2012


Should a strategic Justice assemble a broader coalition for the majority opinion than is necessary, even if that means accommodating changes that move the opinion away from the author’s ideal holding? If the author’s objective is to durably move the law to his or her ideal holding, the conventional answer is no, because there is a cost and no corresponding benefit. We consider whether attracting a broad majority coalition can placate future courts. Controlling for the size of the coalition, we find that cases with ideologically narrow coalitions are more likely to be treated negatively by later courts. Specifically, adding either ideological breadth or a new member to the majority coalition results in an opinion that is less likely to be overruled, criticized, or questioned by a later court. Our findings contradict the conventional wisdom regarding the coalition-building strategy of a rational and strategic opinion author, establishing that the author has an incentive to go beyond the four most ideologically proximate Justices in building a majority coalition. And because of later interpreters’ negative reactions to narrow coalitions, the law ends up being less ideological than the Justices themselves.

Suggested Citation

Benjamin, Stuart Minor and Desmarais, Bruce A., Standing the Test of Time: The Breadth of Majority Coalitions and the Fate of U.S. Supreme Court Precedents (September 17, 2012). The Journal of Legal Analysis, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Stuart Minor Benjamin (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States
919-613-7275 (Phone)
919-613-7231 (Fax)

Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative ( email )

215 Morris St., Suite 300
Durham, NC 27701
United States

Bruce A. Desmarais

Pennsylvania State University ( email )

University Park, State College, PA 16801
United States


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