Judicial Tug of War-Adam Bonica

The Judicial Tug of War

How Lawyers, Politicians, and Ideological Incentives Shape the American Judiciary

Adam Bonica, Stanford University, California, Maya Sen, Harvard University, Massachusetts
Publisher: Cambridge University Press-December 2020

Starting with the case of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Scalia died in early 2016, the expectation was that then-president Barack Obama would name his successor; however, Senate Republicans fought back and prevented Obama from naming well-respected appeals judge Merrick Garland to the Court. This audacious partisan maneuvering illustrates key questions about the increasing polarization of the courts. For example, why have Republicans blasted “activist judges,” and why do they support attempts at “reforming” the judiciary – even as it risks public criticisms of interjecting partisanship and politicization? On the other side of the spectrum, why have Democrats decried Republicans’ tactics, choosing to focus instead on ostensibly nonpartisan characteristics such as pedigree and experience? The answer to these questions is a new framework for thinking about the courts of USA – the judicial tug of war. The judicial tug of war not only explains current political clashes over America’s courts– such as the fight over Scalia’s seat – but also explains the balance of power between party leaders and the nation’s lawyers.

Bonica, A., & Sen, M. (2020). Introduction: The Tug of War Over the American Judiciary. In The Judicial Tug of War: How Lawyers, Politicians, and Ideological Incentives Shape the American Judiciary (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions, pp. 1-28). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108894005.001


1 – Introduction: The Tug of War Over the American Judiciary

I – The Legal Profession and the “Captured Judiciary”

2 – The “American Aristocracy”

3 – The Bar, Self-Regulation, and Judicial Capture

II – Political Actors and the Incentive to Politicize

4 – Politicians, Their Interests, and the Judicial Tug-of-War

5 – Political Incentives and Politicization in the Federal Courts

6 – Politicization in the States and Across Judicial Selection Mechanisms

III – Ramifications of the Judicial Tug-of-War

7 – The Politics of Judicial Reform

8 – The Tug of War, Polarization, and Judicial Conflict

9 – Conclusion: American Courts in Times of Increasing Polarization




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