Law library research


State Supreme Court Research Project

State supreme courts are central players in the U.S. democratic system.  The State Democracy Research Initiative is spearheading an effort to shed new empirical light on their work.  We are collecting data on thousands of state high court rulings across country, coding dozens of variables on each case: procedural history, type of legal issue(s) presented, type of outcome, alignment of justices, identities of parties and attorneys, participation of amicus curiae, and more.

We have preliminarily completed a comprehensive 50-state dataset for all published substantive decisions issued in 2018—nearly 5,000 cases in all.  We are currently gathering historical data on decisions issued in selected states at 10-year intervals: 2008, 1998, and 1988.

Initial findings of interest from the 2018 data include:

  • State supreme courts generally have substantial criminal dockets. About 40% of published rulings were in criminal cases.
  • State supreme courts decide relatively few state constitutional claims, especially on the civil side. Only about 11% of civil cases featured such issues.
    • State constitutional litigation involving individual rights (speech and associational rights, religious rights, privacy rights, and civil rights) was quite rare, with some states seeing few or no such cases.
    • When state constitutional issues were raised, state supreme courts lockstepped their analysis to federal constitutional standards more than one-third of the time.
  • The bulk of state supreme court rulings were unanimous. Only 21% of cases generated a dissent.
  • Amicus participation in state supreme courts was relatively infrequent. Fewer than 17% of cases had any amicus participation at all.
    • Interest groups and trade/business associations were by far the most common amicus filers, with entities on the conservative end of the ideological spectrum participating more frequently than liberal entities.
    • Academic amici were particularly rare. Only two dozen academic amicus briefs were submitted across the 50 states; 35 states saw no such brief.  In contrast, more than 100 merits-stage academic amicus briefs were filed in U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.
  • On many of these variables, there is substantial variation across states.

This presentation offers additional information on the study and its preliminary findings:

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