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The Supreme Court During Crisis

Lee Epstein, Daniel E. Ho, Gary King, Jeffrey A. Segal

How War Affects Only Non-War Cases

Does the U.S. Supreme Court curtail rights and liberties when the nation’s security is under threat? In hundreds of articles and books, and with renewed fervor since September 11, 2001, members of the legal community have warred over this question. Yet, not a single large-scale, quantitative study exists on the subject. Using the best data available on the causes and outcomes of every civil rights and liberties case decided by the Supreme Court over the past six decades and employing methods chosen and tuned especially for this problem, our analyses demonstrate that when crises threaten the nation’s security, the justices are substantially more likely to curtail rights and liberties than when peace prevails. Yet paradoxically, and in contradiction to virtually every theory of crisis jurisprudence, war appears to affect only cases that are unrelated to the war. For these cases, the effect of war and other international crises is so substantial, persistent, and consistent that it may surprise even those commentators who long have argued that the Court rallies around the flag in times of crisis. On the other hand, we find no evidence that cases most directly related to the war are affected.

We attempt to explain this seemingly paradoxical evidence with one unifying conjecture. Instead of balancing rights and security in high stakes cases directly related to the war, the justices retreat to ensuring the institutional checks of the democratic branches. Since rights-oriented and process-oriented dimensions seem to operate in different domains and at different times, and often suggest different outcomes, the predictive factors that work for cases unrelated to the war fail for cases related to the war. If this conjecture is correct, federal judges should consider giving less weight to legal principles established during wartime for ordinary cases, and attorneys should see it as their responsibility to distinguish cases along these lines.

Foreword

Lee Epstein, Barry Friedman, Geoffrey R. Stone

Testing the Constitution

We live in the age of empiricism, and in that age, constitutional law is a relative backwater. Although quantitative methods have transformed entire fields of scholarly inquiry, reshaping what we ask and what we know, those who write about the Constitution rarely resort to quantitative methodology to test their theories. That seems unfortunate, because empirical analysis can illuminate important questions of constitutional law. Or, at least, that is the question to be tested in this Symposium.

We brought together a terrific group of scholars with a unique assignment. We paired distinguished constitutional thinkers with equally accomplished empiricists. We asked the law scholars to identify a core question, assumption, or doctrine from constitutional law, and we asked the empiricist to take a cut at answering it, or at least at figuring out how one might try to answer it. We understood that their answers might be preliminary at best, that the questions might be resistant to easy answers. This is so, in part, because empiricism is as much a means of refining questions as it is a way of answering them.

The balance of this Foreword is, in a sense, an introduction to the idea that more serious empirical analysis can further both constitutional law scholarship and constitutional law decisionmaking. Hence our title: Testing the Constitution.

The Decision to Depart (or Not) from Constitutional Precedent

Lee Epstein, William M. Landes, Adam Liptak

An Empirical Study of the Roberts Court

Constitutional law casebooks, generations of constitutional lawyers, and the Justices themselves say that the Court is more likely to depart from precedent in constitutional cases than in other types. We test this assumption in cases decided by the Roberts Court and find, at odds with earlier studies, that the data provide inconclusive support for it. Other factors, especially criticism of precedent by lower courts and lawyers, are more consistent and stronger predictors of the Court’s decisions to depart from precedent. These findings have interesting implications for lawyering, teaching, and judging in the constitutional law context.