Toward a Historical Understanding of Supreme Court Decision-Making
Denver University Law Review Online, Vol. 91, p. 201, 2014
17 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2014
Date Written: August 1, 2014
An abiding challenge to historians of the Supreme Court of the United States is fashioning a methodology that adequately captures the significant changes in the Court’s decision making process over time without losing sight of the special role the Court and its justices play in American government and culture. Too often historical studies of the Court have suffered from anachronistic perspectives on the actions of justices or a failure to understand the Court’s distinctive deliberative protocols. This essay proposes a methodological approach designed to deal with, if not to completely surmount, those challenges.
The methodology is designed to simultaneously consider justices as historical actors, reflecting the distinctive attitudes and values of their times; as collegial decision makers, assuming roles and engaging in deliberations that flow from their being participants in an institution that makes its decisions collectively and requires a majority of its members to endorse its judgments; and as individual personalities, bringing with them to the bench their distinctive and idiosyncratic ways of conceptualizing and resolving legal and political controversies. By identifying these different ways of thinking about the performance of justices, and at the same emphasizing that judicial decision making, at any point in the Court’s history, is a blend of different variables, the approach seeks to avoid anachronism, excessive reliance on the formal justifications for decisions, and uninformed speculation about how the Court’s internal decision making process functions.
The essay concludes that although the proposed methodology may avoid some of the obvious pitfalls in approaching the Court’s decision making over time, the challenges of anachronism and bias remain endemic in any effort to recover accurate renditions of the Court and its justices.
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