The Legal, Institutional, and Political Factors of Congressional Court-Curbing: The Purpose and Seriousness of Attempts to Constrain the United States Supreme Court

Dr. Christopher P. Banks

Committee Members
Dr. Michael J. Ensley
Dr. Daniel P. Hawes
Dr. Elizabeth Smith-Pryor (Outside Member, Dept. of History, Kent State University)

One of the ways the U.S. Congress attempts to constrain the Supreme Court’s decision-making is through the introduction of Court-curbing legislation—bills that seek to limit judicial power. Since these proposals are rarely enacted, they are typically considered position-taking endeavors, which attack the Court’s institutional legitimacy, in response to constituent concerns and public opinion. Most often, the bills elicit rulings that correspond with legislative preferences because the Court strives to maintain its institutional legitimacy of not being considered a politically activist branch of government. However, an underexplored relationship involves the public policy motivations behind Congress introducing Court-curbing bills and the Supreme Court responding to these bills. It is unclear when ideologically adverse judicial decisions are met with Court-curbing legislation as compared to other types of responses, such as overrides. Of further interest is when the bills are position-taking endeavors or strategic attempts to shape public policy and influence the ideological content of decisions. With respect to the judiciary, it has not been determined when the Supreme Court is responding to Court-curbing legislation to protect its institutional legitimacy or avoid an override.Furthermore, it is unknown how the content of Court-curbing bills influences why the Court responds and for what reason.

Accordingly, this study analyzes the introduction of Court-curbing legislation by Congress and responses by the Supreme Court from 1975-2008 (94th-110th Congresses). First, it is expected that ideological disagreement with judicial decisions and institutional conditions restricting the legislature’s ability to override rulings—specifically legislative gridlock—influence the likelihood and frequency of Court-curbing bills being introduced to pursue policy preferences. Second, Court-curbing bills—especially proposals that attempt to harness judicial power—are postulated to serve as a signal to the Court of the potential of a legislative override; however, responses are dictated by institutional conditions—particularly legislative gridlock—that signal the possibility of a reversal. Results suggest that ideological disagreement between the two branches leads to the introduction of Court-curbing bills, especially those that attempt to harness the Court’s policymaking power. Although ideological disagreement with Congress leads to judicial deference to legislative preferences, the Court and the individual justices are relatively unresponsive to Congress and Court-curbing bills. Additionally, contrary to expectations, legislative gridlock does not increase attempts to manipulate the ideological content of judicial decisions through Court-curbing legislation nor decrease judicial responsiveness to such proposals. Despite these unexpected findings, the dissertation research contributes to the literature by positing and empirically testing an alternative, policy-oriented explanation for the introduction of Court-curbing bills and the Court’s response to the legislation that also takes into account the content of the proposals. Thus, the research is directed at uniting two related, but distinct, bodies of literature on Court-Congress relations and providing a more complete view of the dynamics of Court-curbing.

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