The Influence of Congressional Preferences on Legislative Overrides of Supreme Court Decisions

Published date01 December 2014
Date01 December 2014
The Influence of Congressional Preferences on
Legislative Overrides of Supreme Court Decisions
Alicia Uribe
James F. Spriggs II
Thomas G. Hansford
Studies of Court–Congress relations assume that Congress overrides Court
decisions based on legislative preferences, but no empirical evidence supports
this claim. Our first goal is to show that Congress is more likely to pass override
legislation the further ideologically removed a decision is from pivotal legis-
lative actors. Second, we seek to determine whether Congress rationally anti-
cipates Court rejection of override legislation, avoiding legislation when
the current Court is likely to strike it down. Third, most studies argue that
Congress only overrides statutory decisions. We contend that Congress has an
incentive to override all Court decisions with which it disagrees, regardless
of their legal basis. Using data on congressional overrides of Supreme Court
decisions between 1946 and 1990, we show that Congress overrides Court
decisions with which it ideologically disagrees, is not less likely to override
when it anticipates that the Court will reject override legislation, and acts on
preferences regardless of the legal basis of a decision. We therefore empirically
substantiate a core part of separation-of-powers models of Court–Congress
relations, as well as speak to the relative power of Congress and the Court on
the ultimate content of policy.
The separation of powers (SOP)—how the different branches of
government collaborate in the making and implementing of public
policy—represents a vital aspect of American politics. One SOP
relationship garnering substantial attention concerns the interac-
tions between the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court. Scholars
have examined the dealings between these institutions in multiple
ways, including the extent to which Congress influences Supreme
We presented a previous version of this paper at the 2013 Midwest Political Science
Association Meeting, April 11–14, 2013, Chicago, IL. We thank Eve Ringquist and Nate
Monroe for helpful comments. Research assistance was provided by Ben Goodhue, Adam
Kook, Chris Nanamura, Coell Simmons, Madison Simmons, and Anthony Valenti.
Hansford recognizes funding from a UC Merced Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant.
Spriggs recognizes funding from the National Science Foundation (Law and Social Science,
Please direct all correspondence to James F. Spriggs II, Political Science, Washington
University, One Brookings Dr., St Louis, MO 63119; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 48, Number 4 (2014)
© 2014 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
Court decisions (e.g., Clark 2011; Gely and Spiller 1990; Hansford
and Damore 2000; Harvey and Friedman 2009; Owens 2010; Sala
and Spriggs 2004; Segal 1997; Spiller and Gely 1992), whether the
Court constrains congressional decisionmaking (e.g., Martin 2001),
and the circumstances under which Congress legislatively overrides
Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Blackstone 2013; Eskridge 1991a;
Hausegger and Baum 1999; Hettinger and Zorn 2005; Ignagni
and Meernik 1994; Ignagni, Meernik, and King 1998). Collectively,
the literature uncovers a rich and complex interdependency
between these two important American political institutions.
A core element of SOP studies is a spatial model of the policy
process, in which political actors make decisions as a function of their
preferences over the existing status quo and alternatives to it, as well
as the preferences of other relevant politicians. Researchers thus
assume that preferences over outcomes are a fundamental part of
the policy-making process. Of particular interest to us, previous
studies either (1) apply theoretical models that assume legislators
respond to Court decisions based on their preferences over them
(e.g., Gely and Spiller 1990; Segal 1997) or (2) explicitly hypothesize
that ideological disagreement with Court decisions causes Con-
gress to pass legislation overriding them (Eskridge 1991a, 1991b;
Hettinger and Zorn 2005; Ignagni, Meernik, and King 1998; Staudt,
Lindstadt, and O’Connor 2007). This perspective seems reasonable
in light of the centrality of policy preferences in contemporary
explanations of congressional decisionmaking (Aldrich and Rohde
2000; Cox and McCubbins 2005, 2007; Krehbiel 1991, 1998).
Indeed, the congressional literature offers convincing empirical
evidence that ideology plays a key role in explaining Members’ votes
on bills and the passage of legislation (e.g., Poole and Rosenthal
2007). Yet, the literature examining federal legislation overriding
Court decisions uncovers no systematic evidence they result from
Congress’ preferences regarding them.
To be fair, existing studies illustrate that preferences play a role
in explaining some of Congress’ interactions with the Court. One
area in which policy preferences matter is in sponsorship (but not
passage) of court-curbing bills, or bills aimed at limiting judicial power
(Clark 2011; Curry 2007). Similarly, policy preferences influence the
budget allocated to the Supreme Court, with Congress using the
budget to signal its approval or disapproval of the Court’s decisions
(Toma 1991). Additionally, Martin (2001) shows that the House and
Senate consider the political preferences of both the other chamber
and the Supreme Court when voting on civil rights legislation.
However, research has not uncovered a link between legislative pref-
erences and the passage of court-curbing bills (Chutkow 2008; Curry
2007). Most relevant for this study, there is only anecdotal (Eskridge
1991a, 1991b) and quantitative case study (Clark and McGuire
922 The Influence of Congress on Supreme Court Decisions

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