Overruled: An Event History Analysis of Lower Court Reaction to Supreme Court Alteration of Precedent

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Abstract

While past research has demonstrated widespread compliance in the Courts of Appeals with Supreme Court precedent (e.g., Gruhl 1980; Songer 1987; Songer, Segal, and Cameron 1994; Songer and Sheehan 1990), compliance is not automatic and is surely political. We examine compliance with Supreme Court overrulings of precedent—cases in which we might expect the lowest levels of compliance with Supreme Court policy prescriptions. We argue that several variables are relevant to the compliance decision and that those variables fall into two broad categories: characteristics of the Supreme Court precedent and characteristics of the circuit applying the precedent. In our event history analysis, we find that both precedent and circuit characteristics determine whether, and how quickly, a circuit follows a Supreme Court decision that overrules existing precedent; that is, unanimity, complexity, and the age of the overruled precedent, as well as the likelihood of Supreme Court review, are related to the compliance decision. While the Courts of Appeals adopt alterations in Supreme Court precedent rather quickly (within one or two relevant decisions), these factors exert some influence on that speed.

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