Date of Award

June 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Thomas M. Keck


judicial impact, judicial power, policy change, Supreme Court

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


In this dissertation I seek to answer the question: when, how, and under what conditions does the Supreme Court make or influence policy and politics in the United States? In working to answer this question, I demonstrate that the Supreme Court has significantly more power and influence than scholars have typically given it credit for. I argue that the nature of the Court’s power is interpretive: it is the power to say what the law is. This power gives the Court the ability to make policy routinely, in every case that comes before it. Often the exercise of this policymaking power is mundane, but sometimes it is profound. By shifting focus away from compliance—the dominant focus in the empirical literature on Court power—and towards interpretation, I significantly extend the range of cases and the scope of outcomes of decisions covered by the theory of power. Finally, this theory of power allows me to develop a theory of judicial impact. I contend that judicial impact has two key sources: judicial power, and indirect judicial influence, by which I mean any action which is attributable to an exercise of judicial power, but which is not a direct outcome of any power relationship. For example, political elites respond to Court decisions, other institutions rationally anticipate Court action, and judicial decisions can incentivize or discourage activism, lobbying, legislation, litigation, and more. In short, this points to the utility of expanding the study of judicial impact to encompass all policy-relevant outcomes of judicial action, and the theory offered here provides an anchor for this approach as well as a framework for systematizing a wide range of different impacts. I go on to show that the Court’s indirect influence can be seen in that its decisions routinely affect media coverage of the issues on which it speaks, as well the policymaking agendas of the president and the political parties. In other words, I show that the Court indirectly influences policy in a number of ways, one of which is to alter the political agenda of the public and of other policymaking institutions in the United States.


Open Access