Date of Thesis


Thesis Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Type

Bachelor of Arts

First Advisor

Scott Meinke


In recent history, there has been a trend of increasing partisan polarization throughout most of the American political system. Some of the impacts of this polarization are obvious; however, there is reason to believe that we miss some of the indirect effects of polarization. Accompanying the trend of increased polarization has been an increase in the contentiousness of the Supreme Court confirmation process. I believe that these two trends are related. Furthermore, I argue that these trends have an impact on judicial behavior. This is an issue worth exploring, since the Supreme Court is the most isolated branch of the federal government. The Constitution structured the Supreme Court to ensure that it was as isolated as possible from short-term political pressures and interests. This study attempts to show how it may be possible that those goals are no longer being fully achieved. My first hypothesis in this study is that increases in partisan polarization are a direct cause of the increase in the level of contention during the confirmation process. I then hypothesize that the more contention a justice faces during his or her confirmation process, the more ideologically extreme that justice will then vote on the bench. This means that a nominee appointed by a Republican president will tend to vote even more conservatively than was anticipated following a contentious confirmation process, and vice versa for Democratic appointees. In order to test these hypotheses, I developed a data set for every Supreme Court nominee dating back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt¿s appointments (1937). With this data set, I ran a series of regression models to analyze these relationships. Statistically speaking, the results support my first hypothesis in a fairly robust manner. My regression results for my second hypothesis indicate that the trend I am looking for is present for Republican nominees. For Democratic nominees, the impacts are less robust. Nonetheless, as the results will show, contention during the confirmation process does seem to have some impact on judicial behavior. Following my quantitative analysis, I analyze a series of case studies. These case studies serve to provide tangible examples of these statistical trends as well as to explore what else may be going on during the confirmation process and subsequent judicial decision-making. I use Justices Stevens, Rehnquist, and Alito as the subjects for these case studies. These cases will show that the trends described above do seem to be identifiable at the level of an individual case. These studies further help to indicate other potential impacts on judicial behavior. For example, following Justice Rehnquist¿s move from Associate to Chief Justice, we see a marked change in his behavior. Overall, this study serves as a means of analyzing some of the more indirect impacts of partisan polarization in modern politics. Further, the study offers a means of exploring some of the possible constraints (both conscious and subconscious) that Supreme Court justices may feel while they decide how to cast a vote in a particular case. Given the wide-reaching implications of Supreme Court decisions, it is important to try to grasp a full view of how these decisions are made.