“Courting Legal Change: Dynamics of Voting on the U.S. Supreme Court”


The literature on the Supreme Court has used static models of voting to estimate the policy preferences of justices that largely ignore the role of precedent, a dynamic component in justices' decision-making process that could help explain part of their voting behavior. I formulate and structurally estimate a dynamic game-theoretic model of decision-making on the U.S. Supreme Court that can infer the preferences of individual justices over ideology versus the weight they place on respecting precedent. I find that justices who experience a high cost of deviating from precedent are more ideological when their votes are likely to be pivotal. Taking the model to data, I find that precedent plays a sizable role in explaining justices' voting behaviors with significant heterogeneity across justices and legal issues. Moreover, incorporating precedent in the analysis changes the ideology estimates for about one-third of the justices in the sample. I use these estimates to simulate counterfactual outcomes for policy proposals, such as court-packing and judicial term limits.