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Use of social science by SCOTUS

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

Does the United States Supreme Court rely on social science authority when deciding constitutional issues in criminal cases?


James Acker's 1990 study of social science in Supreme Court criminal cases provided a baseline for its use. This project intends to replicate his work--thirty years later--to assess whether the Court has more often relied on social science as it has gained greater recognition and acceptance, works by empirical legal scholars have grown, and technology has made social science findings more accessible.


Random selection of criminal cases from 1988-2018

James Acker examined the Supreme Court's use over thirty years in five-year increments. He examined the justices who relied on and cited the social science, and he explored whether the social science was cited in lower court decisions and/or in appellate briefs. Using Westlaw and a narrowed search by content type, cases, and the timeline function, we identified a list of criminal cases decided and published by the Supreme Court. To replicate Acker's study, we will systematically identify and collect information on 40 cases from each of the five time periods: 1988-1993, 1993-1998, 1998-2003, 2003-2008, 2008-2013, and 2013-2018.


Random selection of criminal cases from 1988-2018

Based on earlier studies, including Acker, we hypothesize:

(1) There will be an increased use of social science and empirical study over time.

(2) The increase will be most prevalent in dissenting opinions.

(3) The use of and citation to social science will most often occur in constitutional, and deeply-dived issues.

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