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Agenda Setting, Issue Priorities and Organizational Maintenance: The US Supreme Court, 1955 to 1994



In recent decades, political science has turned to the study of agenda setting as a central aspect of collective decision-making environments. The content of the public agenda – and the issue agendas of political institutions – make significant social change possible. Recent studies suggest that these political institutions are engaged in both competitive relationships, as they identify and pursue both active and latent public issues, and more complex cue-taking relationships. For separated powers, the problems of co-operation and competition with one another are entwined with internal collective decision-making dilemmas.

In this study, we focus on the tension within a political institution between agenda setting as a mechanism for internal organizational maintenance, and agenda setting as a consequence of that institution's interaction with other branches of government and the general public. Specifically, we examine agenda setting by the United States Supreme Court, and ask the question of why the Court allocates more or less of its valuable agenda space to one policy issue over others. Our study environment is the policy issue composition of the Court's docket: the Court's attention to criminal justice policy issues relative to other issues. Among the most important powers of the Court is the power to apportion its agenda space among policy issues.

Pacelle argues that the Court's agenda-building process, its culling of cases and issues from numerous petitions, may represent the most important sequence of decisions the Court makes. But the Court's docket is a finite agenda space on which some issues are provided with a larger proportion of the Court's attention. Allocating space to an issue can promote the issue's national visibility and legitimacy as an important public concern.


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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
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