Sunday, April 19, 2009

How Supreme Court Justices Vote

In addition to pointing out that 4 of the top 5 most conservative judges since 1930 are currently on the bench (Thomas, Scalia, Roberts and Alito, with Kennedy coming in at 10th) based on Supreme Court Rulings (a negative in my view, as justices tend to deal with social issues much more than fiscal or foreign policy issues)... this article has a very, very interesting tidbit:

"Some of the results of the authors' analysis are familiar, if not reassuring. The study demonstrates, for example, that Supreme Court justices, in spite of their reputation for impartiality, really do seem to vote along ideological lines. With only a few exceptions, for 70 years, Republican-appointed justices have tended to vote conservatively, and justices appointed by Democrats have tended to vote liberally. "A lot of this just confirms what everybody already knows," says Landes.

But the paper reveals more than that. For one thing, it demonstrates just how much every vote on the Supreme Court counts—particularly, it seems, when the court is leaning conservative. The authors were surprised to find a dramatic pooling effect over the years every time a conservative justice joined the court. "The larger the fraction of justices appointed by Republican presidents," they write, "the more conservatively each Justice [votes]." With McCain promising to nominate conservatives, this finding appears to have real significance today: The more conservatives join a conservative court, the more conservative each justice gets.

The same thing doesn't appear to be true, curiously, for left-leaning judges. The authors find that the court's liberal justices are driven to vote more ideologically not when their numbers grow but when they begin to drop. The fewer justices there are on the court appointed by Democratic presidents, in other words—meaning the more outnumbered the liberal justices are—the more liberal those justices get. Even when the majority shifts only a small amount, from 5-4 liberal to 5-4 conservative, liberal justices tend to vote more liberally about 3 percent of the time. "There's a real polarization effect," says Landes. "

This highlights an interesting note about radicalism. Does this mean that extreme conservatives use each others' radical viewpoints as evidence that their own aren't ridiculous, while extreme liberals are more willing to compromise under normal circumstances and only pull out extremely liberal arguments when they're challenged by equally extreme conservative arguments and need to counterbalance them? The implication of this statement being that while extreme liberals are bad, they're far more reasonable than extreme conservatives, who are terrifying?

Part of this makes some sense. A massive proportion of the conservative social ideology (which is completely detached from the conservative fiscal and foreign policy ideologies, as the Republican party is currently struggling with) is based in a) religion and b) strict constitutionalism - both notions that what has already been written transcends any possibility of flaws or datedness. To hold onto old viewpoints whose applicability is no longer as universal as it once was requires conviction - so surrounding extreme conservatives with other extreme conservatives can provide social support for questionable convictions.

Disclosure: If it wasn't clear, while I'm pretty moderate on fiscal and foreign policy issues, I'm pretty opposed to the conservative social agenda and think it's nuts (As I understand it, the beliefs pretty much consist of anti-abortion, anti-stem cell research, anti-gun control, anti-gay marriage, anti-teaching of evolution, pro-prayer in schools, anti-privacy and anti-government protest). One major exception, one of the only ones I can think of, is for the legalization of marijuana, which I side with conservatives in opposing.

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