Social scientists have convincingly documented soaring levels of political, legal, economic, and social inequality in the United States. Missing from this picture of rampant inequality, however, is any attention to the significant role of state law and courts in establishing policies that either ameliorate or exacerbate inequality. In “Judging Inequality,” political scientists James L. Gibson and Michael J. Nelson demonstrate the influential role of the fifty state supreme courts in shaping the widespread inequalities that define America today, focusing on court-made public policy on issues ranging from educational equity and adequacy to LGBT rights to access to justice to worker’s rights.
Drawing on an analysis of an original database of nearly 6,000 decisions made by over 900 judges on 50 state supreme courts over a quarter century, “Judging Inequality” documents two ways that state high courts have crafted policies relevant to inequality: through substantive policy decisions that fail to advance equality and by rulings favoring more privileged litigants (typically known as “upperdogs”). The authors discover that whether court-sanctioned policies lead to greater or lesser inequality depends on the ideologies of the justices serving on these high benches, the policy preferences of their constituents (the people of their state), and the institutional structures that determine who becomes a judge as well as who decides whether those individuals remain in office.
Gibson and Nelson decisively reject the conventional theory that state supreme courts tend to protect underdog litigants from the wrath of majorities. Instead, the authors demonstrate that the ideological compositions of state supreme courts most often mirror the dominant political coalition in their state at a given point in time. As a result, state supreme courts are unlikely to stand as an independent force against the rise of inequality in the United States, instead making decisions compatible with the preferences of political elites already in power. At least at the state high court level, the myth of judicial independence truly is a myth.
“Judging Inequality” offers a comprehensive examination of the powerful role that state supreme courts play in shaping public policies pertinent to inequality. This volume is a landmark contribution to scholarly work on the intersection of American jurisprudence and inequality, one that essentially rewrites the “conventional wisdom” on the role of courts in America’s democracy.
James L. Gibson is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government at Washington University in St. Louis and Professor Extraordinary in Political Science, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
Michael J. Nelson is the Jeffery L. Hyde and Sharon D. Hyde and Political Science Board of Visitors Early Career Professor in Political Science and associate professor of political science at the Pennsylvania State University.