In this Essay, Professor Cross responds to recent academic efforts to develop a robust judicial federalism doctrine, which advocate increased judicial review of legislative activities and suggest that an expanded federalism doctrine would have significant, negative consequences. Professor Cross challenges the assumption that courts would apply a principled, neutral doctrine of federalism, using empirical evidence to demonstrate that courts consistently have invoked federalism for political or ideological reasons. He suggests that the flexibility of the proposed federalism doctrines would allow judges to manipulate results to achieve ideological ends and that the resulting intrusive judicial review would implicate separation of powers concerns and impair legislative functioning. He argues further that institutional realities-the susceptibility of judges to the concerns and influence of the other branches of government-would prevent such federalism from being a meaningful restriction on the powers of the federal government in any event. Professor Cross concludes that proponents of expanded federalism should focus their efforts on creating a practicable doctrine that is not as vulnerable to ready manipulation and high systemic costs.
Frank B. Cross
In this article, Professors Lindquist and Cross empirically study the effect of precedent on judicial decisionmaking. The framework for their analysis is Ronald Dworkin’s “chain novel” metaphor, an influential theory of the role of precedent whose validity has not previously been empirically tested. The chain novel metaphor suggests that the judicial use of precedent can be likened to a group of authors writing a novel seriatim, in which the accumulation of chapters increasingly constrains the choices and freedom of subsequent writers. Precedent is one of the most important areas of legal research, but currently there is no dominant working theory, and only limited empirical evidence, about its role in judicial decisionmaking.
The first part of the authors’ study examines cases of first impression using a statistical model of judicial voting data from four United States Courts of Appeals between 1984 and 1988. Examining the influence of ideology on judicial decisionmaking in cases of first impression, and controlling for a number of external factors such as regional effects and litigant identity, Lindquist and Cross find that judicial ideology plays a statistically more significant role in cases where judges acknowledge that they are not bound by precedent (as in cases of first impression) than in cases where prior precedent exists. These findings provide preliminary support for the chain novel theory, as the existence of prior precedent appears to limit the degree to which judges are free to decide cases based on their own ideological preferences.
The second part of this study tests the evolving role of precedent over time. Lindquist and Cross examine over seven hundred decisions from five United States Courts of Appeals interpreting the phrase “under color of’ state law from 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To test whether the gradual accretion of precedent increasingly constrains judicial behavior, the authors select cases over a thirty-year period subsequent to the Supreme Court’s liberalization of the § 1983 cause of action in 1961. Controlling for other factors, including potential agenda effects based on the kinds of cases brought before the courts, Lindquist and Cross find that the importance of precedent in judicial decisionmaking is initially stable or increasing over time. However, contrary to the chain novel hypothesis, as the number of prior decisions grows further, precedent plays a decreased role. Judges appear to be relatively more free to decide cases based on their ideological preferences as precedents accumulate, rather than (as Dworkin suggests) more constrained. The study thus provides only limited support for the chain novel theory of judicial decisionmaking, finding that judges are indeed more free to decide based on their ideological preferences where no prior precedents exist. However, the fact that judicial discretion expands with the gradual accretion of precedent suggests that the chain novel thesis does not describe fully the operation of U.S. law.