Lee Epstein
Lee Epsteing Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor
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Published in 2008. In the Oxford Handbook on Law and Politics, ed. Keith E. Whittington, R. Daniel Kelemen, and Gregory A. Caldeira. Oxford University Press.

Lee Epstein

The introduction is below. Click here for the chapter (.pdf).


The editors assigned me a near-daunting task: to write 8,000 words or so on ‘central issues on the current research agenda’ of students of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the first place, the sheer amount of research on the Court is overwhelming. A search in J-Stor retrieves over 3,245 articles with the Supreme Court in the title alone. Our library at Northwestern lists more than 600 books on the Court—and, again, that’s just a title search.

Even more daunting is the lack of a singular research agenda. To the study of the Court, social scientists bring diverse substantive interests, competing theoretical
frameworks, and methodological approaches ranging from deep study of a single case to sophisticated statistical analyses of several thousand. Which all goes to say that possible topics and schemata for organizing them abound. Believing, however, that most research ought begin with interesting questions I have chosen to go that route here. Specifically, I focus on three substantive issues of interest to scholars in the field: Appointments, Agenda Setting, and Decision Making. For each, I summarize the state of our knowledge but, perhaps more importantly, I highlight areas requiring further attention. Indeed, after reviewing the extensive literature, I have come to believe while we have made great strides in our quest to explain various features of the Court we still have some distance to travel. The gaps in our understanding may be narrowing, but they nonetheless remain. Moreover, the task of advancing our knowledge, as I suggest below, will profit immensely from a range of theoretical and methodological approaches.

One, perhaps needless, caveat emptor: in what follows, I have only skimmed the surface. I did not cover many strains of research in the three areas I chose to cover; and I left out many areas altogether. Of the latter, I particular regret lacking the space to discuss the impact of courts—a subject that is of considerable interest to political scientists, and one that has generated deep debate in recent years. Readers can take some solace in the fact that Charles Epp does an excellent job in developing one line of inquiry in this literature: law as an instrument of social reform.