Many theories of judicial politics have at their core the concepts of legal significance, doctrinal development and evolution, and the dynamics of precedent. Despite rigorous theoretical conceptualization, these concepts remain empirically elusive. We propose the use of a genealogical model (or “family tree”) to describe the Court's construction of precedent over time. We describe statistical assumptions that allow us to estimate this kind of structure using an original data set of citation counts between Supreme Court majority opinions. The genealogical model of doctrinal development provides a parsimonious description of the dependencies between opinions, while generating measures of legal significance and other related quantities. We employ these measures to evaluate the robustness of a recent finding concerning the relationship between ideological homogeneity within majority coalitions and the legal impact of Court decisions.
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