Research

My research interests are broadly in American law and politics. My scholarship sits at the intersections of American institutions, judicial politics, and political behavior. In particular, I am interested in the ways that interactions between American political institutions and the mass public produce changes in public policy–often with a focus on the judiciary. I have several ongoing research projects that fit under this umbrella.

Much of my current research examines the relationship between the United States Supreme Court and public opinion—both how the Court influences, and is influenced by, the mass public. I am engaged in a book-length project (with co-author Ben Johnson), in which we explore the extent to which the Supreme Court is influenced by public opinion. We argue, contrary to the long-held consensus in political science, that there is no evidence that the Court responds to the will of the people (see graph below). Our research casts doubt not only on theories of direct “judicial responsiveness” to the public, but also to “regime theories” of politics which suggest that the Court moors itself to the preferences of the governing coalition. In other words, our work suggests that the Court is much more independent than political scientists have long thought. This research has important implications–especially considering the significant influence the Court exerts in policymaking in the US.

SCOTUS_Mood.png
Caption: The graph at left shows the best fit line for all terms in the dataset; the graph at right show fits the best line excluding the Warren Court observations. The appearance of correlation between public opinion and Court outputs is owed entirely to the Warren Court!

Even if the Supreme Court does not meaningfully “respond” to the public—the high esteem in which it is held means that the Court frequently does influence public opinion. However, the Court does not speak directly to the people; rather, information about the Court only comes to the public through the media, and the media pays relatively little attention to the Court. In a recent article, I show that the expected political and legal impact of Supreme Court decisions drives media attention to cases. This finding has a number of important implications for how we think about judicial influence on a range of outcomes, such as public opinion, subsequent activism, and responses from other political elites. For example, this finding implies that only decisions that are expected by elites to have significant political and/or legal impact are likely to become salient enough in the media to have any downstream effect on public opinion or mass political behavior. One of the Court’s most salient decisions in recent years was Kelo v. New London. In another article in this vein, I show that the Court’s decision in Kelo v. New London dramatically increased the salience of eminent domain, and powerfully influenced public opinion on that topic, thus opening the door for the flurry of legislative activity on that topic in the period following that decision.

In an ongoing project (with Shana Gadarian) that builds on this work, we contend that the fact that Supreme Court decisions rarely receive media coverage means those decisions will rarely be able to influence public opinion. Put differently, many scholars contend that the Supreme Court, through its unique institutional legitimacy, can lend public legitimacy to policies that it endorses. We believe that these scholars have been correct to highlight this power of the Court, but that they have not been sufficiently attentive to the political contexts in which this legitimation is likely to occur. Thus we contend that the Court’s ability to influence public opinion, or to lend legitimacy or induce backlash to policies, is powerfully constrained by media attention.

Moreover, Supreme Court justices, by all appearances, take institutional legitimacy quite seriously. In another work (with Colin Glennon), we show that justices’ off-bench rhetoric–like televised interviews–focuses in larger part on reinforcing the Court’s legitimacy. And moreover, this off-bench rhetoric does meaningfully move public opinion: when people here a justice saying that it’s important to have a “neutral decision-maker” in our politics, or describing the “legal process”, they view the Court as more legitimate.

Additionally, in a collaborative project (with Laura Hatcher and Randy Burnside) building on this theme, we examine legal mobilizations in response to flood mitigation policies in post-Katrina New Orleans as well as in a rural community in southeastern Missouri (paper in progress). We also argue that attitudes toward property powerfully influence public responses to disaster policies, including motivating grass-roots litigation against existing policy in the areas of disaster clean-up and flood mitigation. Ultimately, this research will shed light on the ways that grass-roots legal activism can shape policy throughout the US.

I’m also working on research projects which seek to understand the economic and social impacts of the National Flood Insurance Program, public opinion and the ways in which race and racial attitudes shape political attitudes and behaviors (with Spencer Piston and Tom Ogorzalek), and public opinion on disaster mediation policies

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