Hostname: page-component-5db6c4db9b-ldcpl Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-23T17:46:23.884Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Supreme Facts

The Prevalence and Justification of Social Facts in Landmark Decisions of the Supreme Court

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2022

Morgan Marietta*
University of Massachusetts Lowell
Tyler Farley
University of Massachusetts Lowell
Contact the corresponding author, Morgan Marietta, at


One of the central roles of the Supreme Court is to settle controversies over social facts, but little is known about the prevalence of these rulings or the justifications for them offered by the Court. An analysis of the landmark decisions from 1900 to 2015 reveals that most include a ruling on a disputed social fact, though the Court rarely offers an explicit justification. Rulings from different ideological perspectives invoke social facts at the same rate but with distinct patterns of justification, illustrating a division in approach to this vital aspect of the Court’s work.

Research Article
© 2016 by the Law and Courts Organized Section of the American Political Science Association. All rights reserved.

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


The authors would like to thank David Barker, Les Benedict, Sam DeCanio, Howard Gillman, Ronald Kahn, John Maltese, Jordan Marietta, and Bert Rockman for valuable comments on earlier drafts and the Honors College of the University of Massachusetts Lowell for its generous fellowship support.


Ackerman, Bruce. 1998. We the People: Transformations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Alfange, Dean. 1966. “The Relevance of Legislative Facts in Constitutional Law.University of Pennsylvania Law Review 114:637–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Amar, Akhil. 1998. The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Bartels, Brandon. 2009. “The Constraining Capacity of Legal Doctrine on the U.S. Supreme Court.American Political Science Review 103 (3): 474–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bartels, Larry. 2002. “Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions.Political Behavior 24 (2): 117–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Benedict, Michael Les. 1995. The Blessings of Liberty. Lexington, MA: Heath.Google Scholar
Biklé, Henry Wolfe. 1924. “Judicial Determination of Questions of Fact Affecting the Constitutional Validity of Legislative Action.Harvard Law Review 38:627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Borgmann, Caitlin. 2013. “Appellate Review of Social Facts in Constitutional Rights Cases.California Law Review 101:11851248.Google Scholar
Brandwein, Pamela. 1999. Reconstructing Reconstruction: The Supreme Court and the Production of Historical Truth. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
Cook, Beverly. 1993. “Measuring the Significance of U.S. Supreme Court Decisions.Journal of Politics 55:1127–39.Google Scholar
Davis, Kenneth Culp. 1942. “An Approach to Problems of Evidence in Administrative Agencies.Harvard Law Review 55:364425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Davis, Kenneth Culp. 1955. “Judicial Notice.Columbia Law Review 55:945–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Davis, Kenneth Culp. 1986. “Judicial, Legislative, and Administrative Lawmaking: A Proposed Research Service for the Supreme Court.Minnesota Law Review 71:118.Google Scholar
Eidinger, Adam. 2015. “Don’t Call Us Potheads.” CNN Online, May 20.Google Scholar
Epp, Charles. 1998. The Rights Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Epstein, Lee, and Knight, Jack. 1998. The Choices Justices Make. Washington, DC: CQ Press.Google Scholar
Faigman, David. 1991. “Normative Constitutional Fact-Finding: Exploring the Empirical Component of Constitutional Interpretation.University of Pennsylvania Law Review 139:541613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Faigman, David. 2008. Constitutional Fictions: A Unified Theory of Constitutional Facts. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Friedman, Lawrence. 2005. A History of American Law. 3rd ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
Gaines, Brian, Kuklinski, James, Quirk, Paul, Peyton, Buddy, and Verkuilen, Jay. 2007. “Same Facts, Different Interpretations: Partisan Motivation and Opinion on Iraq.Journal of Politics 69:957–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gerber, Alan, and Huber, Gregory. 2010. “Partisanship, Political Control, and Economic Assessments.American Journal of Political Science 54 (1): 153–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gillman, Howard. 1993. The Constitution Besieged: The Rise and Demise of Lochner Era Police Powers Jurisprudence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
Haney Lopez, Ian. 1996. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
Hartman, Gary, Mersky, Roy, and Tate, Cindy. 2004. Landmark Supreme Court Cases. New York: Facts on File.Google Scholar
Hochschild, Jennifer, and Einstein, Katherine. 2015. Do Facts Matter? Information and Misinformation in American Politics. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jerit, Jennifer, and Barabas, Jason. 2012. “Partisan Perceptual Bias and the Information Environment.Journal of Politics 74 (3): 672–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Joslyn, Mark, and Haider-Markel, Donald. 2014. “Who Knows Best? Education, Partisanship, and Contested Facts.Politics and Policy 42 (6): 919–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kahan, Dan. 2013. “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection.Judgment and Decision-Making 8 (4): 407–24.Google Scholar
Kahan, Dan, and Braman, Donald. 2006. “Cultural Cognition and Public Policy.Yale Law and Policy Review 24:147–70.Google Scholar
Kahan, Dan, Braman, Donald, Gastil, John, and Slovic, Paul. 2007. “Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White-Male Effect in Risk Perception.Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 4:465505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kahn, Ronald. 1999. “Institutional Norms and the Historical Development of Supreme Court Politics: Changing ‘Social Facts’ and Doctrinal Development.” In The Supreme Court in American Politics: New Institutionalist Interpretations, ed. Gillman, Howard and Clayton, Cornell. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar
Kahn, Ronald. 2006. “Social Constructions, Supreme Court Reversals, and American Political Development: Lochner, Plessy, Bowers, but Not Roe.” In The Supreme Court and American Political Development, ed. Kahn, Ronald and Kersch, Ken. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar
Karst, Kenneth. 1960. “Legislative Facts in Constitutional Litigation.Supreme Court Review 1960:75112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Keeton, Robert. 1988. “Legislative Facts and Similar Things: Deciding Disputed Premise Facts.Minnesota Law Review 73:172.Google Scholar
Kuklinski, James, Quirk, Paul, Jerit, Jennifer, Schweider, David, and Rich, Robert. 2000. “Misinformation and the Currency of Democratic Citizenship.Journal of Politics 62:790815.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Larsen, Allison. 2012. “Confronting Supreme Court Fact Finding.Virginia Law Review 98:12551312.Google Scholar
Larsen, Allison. 2013. “Factual Precedents.University of Pennsylvania Law Review 162:59116.Google Scholar
Lively, Donald. 1999. Landmark Supreme Court Cases: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood.Google Scholar
Lutz, Donald. 1988. The Origins of American Constitutionalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.Google Scholar
Marietta, Morgan. 2014. A Citizen’s Guide to the Constitution and the Supreme Court: Constitutional Conflict in American Politics. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Marietta, Morgan, Barker, David, and Bowser, Todd. 2015. “Fact-Checking Polarized Politics: Does the Fact-Check Industry Provide Consistent Guidance on Disputed Realities?Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics 13 (4): 577–96.Google Scholar
McGinnis, John, and Mulaney, Charles. 2008. “Judging Facts Like Law.Constitutional Commentary 25:69130.Google Scholar
Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper.Google Scholar
Nyhan, Brendan, and Reifler, Jason. 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.Political Behavior 32 (2): 303–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pascoe, Peggy. 2009. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Rakove, Jack. 1996. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
Rotunda, Ronald. 2015. Modern Constitutional Law. 11th ed. St. Paul, MN: West.Google Scholar
Scheppele, Kim Lane. 1988. Legal Secrets: Equality and Efficiency in the Common Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Segal, Jeffrey, and Cover, Albert. 1989. “Ideological Values and the Votes of U.S. Supreme Court Justices.American Political Science Review 83:557–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Segal, Jeffrey, and Spaeth, Harold. 1993. The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Segal, Jeffrey, and Spaeth, Harold. 1996. “The Influence of Stare Decisis on the Votes of United States Supreme Court Justices.American Journal of Political Science 40 (4): 9711003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Segal, Jeffrey, and Spaeth, Harold. 2002. The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model Revisited. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shaman, Jeffrey. 1983. “Constitutional Fact: The Perception of Reality by the Supreme Court.Florida Law Review 35:236–53.Google Scholar
Shapiro, Robert, and Bloch-Elchon, Yaeli. 2008. “Do the Facts Speak for Themselves? Partisan Disagreement as a Challenge to Democratic Competence.Critical Review 20 (1): 115–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sherry, Suzanna. 2011. “Foundational Facts and Doctrinal Change.University of Illinois Law Review 2011:145–85.Google Scholar
Spaeth, Harold J., Epstein, Lee, Martin, Andrew, Segal, Jeffrey, Ruger, Theodore, and Benesh, Sara. 2015. Supreme Court Database. Version 2015 Release 01.Google Scholar
Sunstein, Cass. 1993. The Partial Constitution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Whittington, Keith. 1999. Constitutional Interpretation: Textual Meaning, Original Intent, and Judicial Review. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar