New Assistant Professor Takes a Closer Look at Court Decisions

Blog contributor 

When looking at judicial hierarchy, conventional wisdom has always held a top-down theory—that lower courts interpret what higher courts do.  “But we found much of the language was traveling the other way,” says Deborah Beim, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Resident Faculty at ISPS.

While in graduate school at Princeton University, Beim set out to study Supreme Court justices’ dissenting opinions, and how lower court judges use the language in them. “I thought dissenting opinions might contain hints to lower court judges about how to avoid complying with the precedent.“  So with the help of a graduate student in computer science, Sean Gerrish, she set up a text analysis program that could pick up instances of lower court judges “plagiarizing” from dissenting opinions. What she discovered instead was surprising: the Supreme Court systematically incorporates language from the lower federal courts into its majority opinions.

“What I had found with Sean, and what other people were finding, led me to want to understand exactly how and what the Supreme Court learns from lower courts, and how it can best use the Courts of Appeals as laboratories of law, which is what my dissertation tried to do.”

The argument that Beim put forth in her dissertation is that the Supreme Court chooses to review cases that will be informative to it—which means “they’re not reviewing because they intend to reverse the lower court’s decision.” And that is quite different from previous research. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more likely to affirm lower courts’ decisions, because often the cases that are most informative will be reversed upon review.”

One case Beim looked at carefully was National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the case ruling on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), where four circuits had heard cases about the constitutionality of the ACA. In Beim’s dissertation, “Finding Law: Learning in the Judicial Hierarchy” she argues that, “typically hearing one case is sufficient, and that typically the case that should be heard—the most informative case—is the one that will be reversed.” As is turned out, this is what happened in the ACA case. “The Supreme Court heard only the case from the Eleventh Circuit, and found the individual mandate to be constitutional.” (The Sixth and DC Circuit courts had upheld the mandate; the Fourth Circuit had refused to decide on the merits based on the Anti-Injunction Act, and the Eleventh Circuit held the individual mandate unconstitutional.)

Beim thinks there are benefits to the idea of the judicial hierarchy as a learning organization. “The Supreme Court can evaluate these other cases with their different arguments and learn from them before making its own decision. This is very useful for the Supreme Court, because cases like the ACA are always hard.”

When the Supreme Court ultimately found the ACA constitutional in a 5-4 ruling handed down on June 28, 2012, it was seen as a surprise upset. “We’ve heard speculation that Chief Justice Roberts changed his mind during the course of deliberation, but even when a justice knows what outcome he or she seeks, figuring out how to craft legal doctrine to achieve exactly that outcome is not a straightforward problem. In either circumstance, it’s useful to have lawyers propose legal solutions, and to have lower court judges sift through and validate, or invalidate, those arguments.”

In addition to her work on learning from lower courts, Beim is also working on a project with John Kastellec and Alex Hirsch from Princeton using formal theory to study whistleblowing, looking at when the threat of whistleblowing prevents non-compliance ex ante, and when whistleblowers actually come forward and endure ex post sanctions for non-compliance.

Professor Beim joined the Department of Political Science at Yale this summer and is a Faculty Resident at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, which is home to a large group of scholars who study U.S. politics. She will be teaching two courses this semester, one on political game theory and the other on American courts.