Judging Inequality: State Supreme Courts and the Inequality Crisis

What role have courts, especially the state high courts, played in the rise of inequality in America? In this article, we report key findings from our recent book, Judging Inequality. We begin by describing the data we collected about cases and judges, illustrating the wide degree of variation across courts and justices in the propensity to decide in favor of greater political, legal, economic, and social equality. Second, we describe our measure of judicial ideology and present evidence of a significant relationship between ideologies and behavior in cases implicating inequality in the state high courts. Next, we zoom out and examine change in the composition of the state high courts between 1990 and 2015. We find a marked ascendency of Republican (conservative) justices, such that institutions that were once dominated by Democratic (liberal) justices reached parity at the end of our time period. Finally, we discuss how the composition of these courts relates to the other branches of state government, arguing that state high courts are powerful allies to the dominant political interests in power in a state at a given point in time, rather than an independent bulwark against rising inequality. We conclude that state high courts are rarely an independent force for creating greater political, legal, economic, and social inequality; instead, these courts tend to support the same policies endorsed by the governing coalition in their states. We outline some mechanisms, most notably control over initial selection of justices and the role of state-level public opinion, that political elites seem to use to strengthen their control over these powerful institutions. We conclude by reflecting on the role of state high courts in democratic theory and their consequences for the seemingly inexorable rise of inequality in America.


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Work Title Judging Inequality: State Supreme Courts and the Inequality Crisis
Open Access
  1. James L. Gibson
  2. Michael J. Nelson
License In Copyright (Rights Reserved)
Work Type Article
  1. Political Science Quarterly
Publication Date March 29, 2022
Publisher Identifier (DOI)
  1. https://doi.org/10.1002/polq.13318
Deposited August 01, 2022




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Work History

Version 1

  • Created
  • Added PSQ_Final_Version.pdf
  • Added Creator James L. Gibson
  • Added Creator Michael J. Nelson
  • Published
  • Updated Work Title, Subtitle, Publication Date Show Changes
    Work Title
    • Judging Inequality
    • Judging Inequality: State Supreme Courts and the Inequality Crisis
    • State Supreme Courts and the Inequality Crisis
    Publication Date
    • 2022-06-01
    • 2022-03-29