Just returned from the Midwest Political Science Association conference and wanted to share some of "what I learned in Chicago." Here goes.
First, we have discussed here issues of measurement, especially with respect to "the law" and "ideology." A few presentations and comments of discussants are relevant to these discussions. First, Sean Wilson's paper, entitled, "Modeling Justice Ideology Without Ecological Inference" argues that using career liberalism scores to predict votes is better than using the Segal and Cover scores in terms of model fit. I suggested that using votes to predict votes is circular and the discussant (Brandon Bartels, soon-to-be assistant professor at SUNY StonyBrook) noted that use of the Martin-Quinn scores has been similarly criticized. Martin and Quinn have a working paper on the question of when we can use their scores as independent variables that is interesting, though I remain unconvinced. Seems to me that using percent liberal (or ideal points, which are based on votes) to predict votes shows us that judges are CONSISTENT, but not WHY they make the choices they do in the first place (which I find much more interesting). Of course, this is all open to comment. (And I do think Sean makes a good point that the attitudinal model operates differently in different issue areas.) Don Songer (South Carolina) brought up the issue of unanimous decisions during the discussion as well, and that's one area where the attitudinal model doesn't give us much. We definitely need to better understand why the Court sometimes decides unanimously. Thoughts?
Also interesting were a number of papers dealing with the influence of law on decision making, both on the Supreme Court and lower court levels. Jason and I have already talked about our paper measuring the influence of legal interpretive strategies. Bartels has an interesting paper that argues that the operation of preferences at the Supreme Court is influenced by law, using jurisprudential regimes to show that ideology has more room to influence outcome when, for example, rational basis review is appropriate than when strict scrutiny controls. My coauthors (Jennifer Luse and Wendy Martinek) and I also use the notion of jurisprudential regimes to measure compliance by the Court of Appeals with the Supreme Court in our paper on Lemon, and Pam Corley (Vanderbilt) gave a very interesting paper that shows that TYPE of concurrence effects lower court compliance with the Supreme Court (and so, the Court has some control over its effect). While I haven't read the papers or seen the presentations, papers by Cameron (Princeton) and Kornhauser (NYU), Jacobi and Tiller (Northwestern), and Lax (Columbia) look like they treat both law and the relationship between levels of courts in interesting ways.
Obviously, this barely scratches the surface in terms of what was presented at the conference and I encourage you to browse the MWPSA paper archive to read more! (And would love for those of you who did attend, to use this opportunity to discuss the best work you saw presented.)