Shipan pens WaPo piece on ‘the crucial role of the median justice’ and the Scalia appointment

February 16, 2016

It’s an election year, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that Republicans and Democrats are bickering vehemently over whether or not President Obama, who will soon leave office, should have the right to appoint Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement. But that’s far from the only reason to deliberate about our next justice explains Chuck Shipan, the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Professor of Social Sciences. In a recent piece for The Washington Post, Shipan describes why Scalia’s Supreme Court replacement matters.

“[W]e might think of the nine justices as being arrayed on a left-right scale, with the most liberal justice at the leftmost point, and the most conservative justice at the rightmost point,” writes Shipan with David Cottrell (MA ’12, PhD ’15), a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth. “When the justices vote according to their ideological positions, then the median justice—the one at the middle—is the one who is most influential” they write, citing research by Shipan and Bryon Moraski of the University of Florida on “the crucial role of the median justice on the Supreme Court.”

In the current arrangement, they explain, the median justice is Anthony Kennedy, who provides a swing vote on many of the most contested cases. But the next justice—if appointed by a Democratic president—will move this median. Interestingly, Shipan and Cottrell’s recent research suggests that even if the Senate tries to block an Obama appointment, the president may be able to draw on political capital “to pull the court toward his preferred ideology—perhaps even as far as [Justice] Kagan," and that this would represent the largest shift on the Court in decades.

“There’s always a lot at stake in presidential nominations to the court,” they write. “These political science tools—which help us to think systematically about the crucial role of the median justice on the Supreme Court—tell us why there’s even more at stake this time around.”