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The Supreme Court's Many Median Justices

  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 November 2012

One-dimensional spatial models have come to inform much theorizing and research on the U.S. Supreme Court. However, we argue that judicial preferences vary considerably across areas of the law, and that limitations in our ability to measure those preferences have constrained the set of questions scholars pursue. We introduce a new approach, which makes use of information about substantive similarity among cases, to estimate judicial preferences that vary across substantive legal issues and over time. We show that a model allowing preferences to vary over substantive issues as well as over time is a significantly better predictor of judicial behavior than one that only allows preferences to vary over time. We find that judicial preferences are not reducible to simple left-right ideology and, as a consequence, there is substantial variation in the identity of the median justice across areas of the law during all periods of the modern court. These results suggest a need to reconsider empirical and theoretical research that hinges on the existence of a single pivotal median justice.

Corresponding author
Benjamin E. Lauderdale is Lecturer, Department of Methodology, London School of Economics and Political Science, Columbia House, Houghton Street, London, UKWC2A 2AE (
Tom S. Clark is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Emory University, 327 Tarbutton Hall, 1555 Dickey Drive, Atlanta, GA 30322 (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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