Doctoral Dissertation Research: Agenda Dynamics in the U.S. Federal Courts

Project: Research project

Project Details


Whether courts set the agenda or simply react to policy attention in other institutions is a question unresolved by social scientists and legal scholars, and one with important implications for policymakers. For example, by using the courts, do interest groups encourage attention for their preferred policies? Through litigation, do citizens gain the attention of government? These and other questions are part of a larger puzzle: what part do federal courts play in the policy process? On this, two separate perspectives have emerged. In the first view, the courts are passive implementers of policy, with attention in the courts following attention in other institutions. Contrary to this perspective, an emerging literature suggests the courts can be used by litigants and interest groups to proactively shift issue attention across multiple policymaking institutions. To address these questions, this research offers the first comprehensive, long-term study of issue attention across the federal judiciary. The investigator examines change in the issue attention of litigants, judges and interest groups within the federal courts and documents their relationships within and across courts. Beyond the judiciary, the author tests competing theories of how Congress and the executive branch impact, or are impacted by, the issue attention of actors within the legal system. In doing so, this project offers a unique contribution to studies of the hierarchical relationships of federal courts as well as the role of courts in the policy process.

Moreover, the data provided by the study offer a substantial resource for scholars of judicial politics, interest groups, agenda-setting, and the policy process. More broadly, for litigants and groups designing broad strategies to influence public policy, whether or not the courts are influential in determining issue attention has dire implications. For judges and court administrators who are responsible for oversight of the judicial process, the proposed research and resultant data will also be of potential interest.

Effective start/end date8/1/127/31/14


  • National Science Foundation: $23,399.00


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