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Three Models of Supreme Court Decision-Making

Andrew Kennard
2 min readApr 3, 2021


In my college politics reading about the judiciary, I learned about three models that are used to describe how Supreme Court justices make decisions. Here they are:

  1. The legal model. According to this model, judges make decisions according to the case at hand and applicable laws, the intent of the Founders, parts of the Constitution, and legal precedent. Most justices say that they make decisions according to these.
  2. The attitudinal model. This model says that justices act in accordance with their own political views and act like legislators by building coalitions, controlling the Court’s agenda, and bargaining with each other. This model is backed up by the norm that conservative presidents usually appoint conservative justices and liberal presidents usually appoint liberal justices to advance their goals. The Court is often discussed in terms of its balance of conservative and liberal justices.
  3. The strategic (or rational choice) model. This model says that justices strategically consider how to achieve their political and ideological goals in light of obstacles that stand in their way. Under this model, justices consider how to achieve their goals in spite of obstacles, such as prior court precedents and other justices. Justices also consider that Congress has the power to overturn a Supreme Court decision with legislation and the effects that their interpretations of the law and the Constitution will have on future cases.

These three roles for justices show how justices might act as only interpreters of the law, as active politicians, or as strategic actors who work within the legal and political system to achieve their preferences.


Kollman, Ken. The American Political System. 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017.



Andrew Kennard

Christian, writer, Eagle Scout, and Drake University Class of '24.