Citations in the U.S. Supreme Court: An Empirical Study of Their Use and Significance

Supreme Court citations are rarely the subject of rigorous analysis. This Article presents an empirical examination of Supreme Court opinion citation practices since World War II, with a focus on the era from the Warren Court through the end of the Rehnquist Court. After theoretically analyzing the role of citations in judicial opinions and their significance, we explain how they may be used as a test of stare decisis and the Court’s projection of power and legitimation of its authority. We measure both the raw number of citations in majority opinions and the significance of the cases cited (using a calculation of their network centrality at the time of the decision). Various factors significantly influence citation frequency and choice, including the type of case. After controlling for these factors, we consider the relative citation practices of the Justices of the Court since the 1950s. This method allows us to find that political legitimation of decisions is a key determinant of citations, but that legal factors also matter. We also explore the citation practices of individual Justices. Our findings are consistent with the conventional wisdom in some instances, but serve to dispel other common beliefs. For example, we find that Justices Black and Douglas showed relatively little devotion to precedents but the Warren Court more generally was concerned about stare decisis. In the recent era, Justice Souter stands out for his citation practices. Finally, we examine the implications, on future citation use, of an opinion’s volume of citations to precedent, and their respective network centrality.

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