Attitudes About Attitudes

Attitudes about the Supreme Court differ sharply, particularly among academics. Law professors believe the Constitution and other laws constrain the Court, while most political scientists do not. These different perspectives on justices’ fidelity to the law ensure that legal scholars and political scientists have little to say about the Court that is of interest to each other. As a result, it should not be surprising that most legal scholars are unfamiliar with Harold Spaeth and Jeffrey Segal, the two political scientists most closely associated with the view that the law does not constrain the justices from voting their policy preferences. Building on social psychology research and theory, Spaeth initially constructed and Segal later joined in refining the so-called attitudinal model. In several publications including a classic book published in 1993, Spaeth and Segal (“the authors”) explain and demonstrate the empirical support for their model as holding that justices decide cases on the basis of their personal attitudes about social policy and not on the basis of any genuine fidelity to law. In 1999, the authors empirically demonstrated that precedent did not constrain the justices from voting their policy preferences. This and other research have made the authors lightening rods among political scientists who study the Court. Spurred by their zealous commitment to the attitudinal model and their notoriety among political scientists, the authors revised their classic work to update its empirical foundation and to respond to their critics. The revised work constitutes their most extensive challenge yet to skeptics of the attitudinal model.