Network Analysis and the Law: Measuring the Legal Importance of Precedents at the US Supreme Court

August 01, 2006

Funding: National Science Foundation

Summary: Scholars, judges, and lawyers commonly recognize that stare decisis - the rule that judges follow the rulings in previously decided court opinions - is the central norm underlying the American judiciary.  Despite the recognized centrality of stare decisis, however, no social scientific study to date has put forward a comprehensive explanation for why and when it developed.  In fact, scholars do not even agree on when the norm of judges respecting precedent became institutionalized in America.  This study will provide a theoretical explanation for the origin and development of stare decisis based on the idea that informal political norms, such as stare decisis, result from the strategic choices of decision makers.  This study tests the theoretical predictions using rigorous quantitative tests on data drawn from court opinions issued by colonial courts, state supreme courts, and federal courts (U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Circuit Courts, and Federal District Courts) from the earliest reported colonial court opinions through 1890.