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The U.S. Supreme Court's Incorporation and Interpretation of Precedent

James F. Spriggs, II and Thomas G. Hansford
Law & Society Review
Vol. 36, No. 1 (2002), pp. 139-160
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Law and Society Association
DOI: 10.2307/1512195
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1512195
Page Count: 22
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The U.S. Supreme Court's Incorporation and Interpretation of Precedent
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Abstract

What explains how and why the Supreme Court interprets precedent? We contend that Justices incorporate precedents into their opinions to maximize the extent to which the Court's legal policy reflects their own policy preferences and to increase the likelihood that their opinions will be efficacious. Thus, we expect the interpretation of precedent to be influenced by the Justices' policy preferences, the norm of stare decisis, and certain characteristics of precedents. To test this idea, we examined how, in all cases decided in the 1991 and 1995 terms, the Court's majority opinions chose to legally interpret the set of available Supreme Court precedents. While our results are not uniformly supportive of our hypotheses, they lend general support to our theoretical argument. First, we demonstrate that the Court is more likely to positively interpret (rather than not interpret) a precedent that is ideologically proximate to the Court, that is legally relevant, or that was previously positively interpreted by the Court. When considering negative treatment broadly construed, our data only demonstrate that the legal relevance of a precedent exerts any influence. However, when we restrict our analysis to "strong" negative interpretation of precedent, we uncover reasonable support for the influence of stare decisis in that both the legal relevance of precedent and prior negative interpretation of precedent affect strong negative treatment. Thus, one implication of this study is that, contrary to the attitudinal model's prediction, the Court's prior treatment of precedent does appear to influence the way Justices make decisions.

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