Political Science Now

Judicial Supremacy, Judicial Power, and the Finality of Constitutional Rulings

Judicial Supremacy, Judicial Power, and the Finality of Constitutional Rulings

by Scott E. Lemieux, University of Washington

It is widely assumed that the Supreme Court of the United States has established supremacy over contested constitutional questions, with the power to make final determinations of constitutional meaning. Since the 1960s, most scholars have assumed that legislatures and courts are engaged in a power struggle in which countermajoritarian courts can assert their will over majoritarian legislatures. More recently, a new generation of scholarship has demonstrated that judicial power often expands as a result of the willful empowerment of the judiciary by actors in other branches. Most scholars working with the latter framework, however, do not dispute that the United States has a regime of judicial supremacy—they simply see the political empowerment of courts as an explanation for why judicial supremacy has emerged despite the initially weak position of the judiciary. I argue that the insights of the political empowerment literature should be pressed further. It makes little sense to use the general label “judicial supremacy” for a system in which judicial power remains dependent on choices made by other political actors. Examining several cases that are generally seen as canonical examples of assertions of judicial supremacy, I find that courts were unable to settle constitutional debates, and in addition often either were unable to achieve their policy aims or did not actually require other political actors to do anything. The logic of new empirical findings about the sources of judicial power should compel scholars to question whether aggressive assertions of supremacy in judicial opinions are in fact accurate descriptions of how judicial power functions in the United States.

Scott Lemieux

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Perspectives on PoliticsFirst View / Published online: 18 September 2017