Video: 2015 Edward S. Corwin Award

The Edward S. Corwin prize is awarded annually for the best dissertation in the field of public law. The Recipient is Matthew Hitt, Louisiana State University for the Dissertation: “Judgment-rationale inconsistency in the US Supreme Court,” Ohio State University

Matthew Hitt receiving awardMatthew Hitt advances an elegant theory that considers an important aspect of Supreme Court decision making with ramifications beyond the Court, one that frustrates many political scientists and lawyers: the plurality decision, or, in Hitt’s language, incidences of judgment-rationale inconsistency. Conducting rigorous and methodologically sophisticated tests of results from formal modeling, Hitt explores what drives judgment-rationale inconsistency, the slippage between outcome vote and rationale that emerges when there exists no opinion on which a majority of justices agree. In the strongest form of rationale inconsistency, the “discursive dilemma,” the opinions offered by the members of the majority are not only joined by fewer than a majority, but are also logically inconsistent with each other. Social choice theorists of judicial hierarchies have long thought that such dilemmas must have important consequences for strategic docket management, as well as the precedential value or systemic legitimacy of a decision. Hitt asks how much of a pathology judgment-rationale inconsistency really is for the legitimacy of the rule of law in an advanced legal system, and whether it is getting worse over time. His findings suggest that such inconsistency, at least in its strongest form (the discursive dilemma), has significant negative impact on the precedential value of a decision and presumably the legitimacy of the Court issuing it. But, if this is pathology, it is one that has remained remarkably consistent over time and may be intrinsic in judicial hierarchies that are tasked with resolving politically contentious issues. Hitt’s ability to predict the circumstances under which the Court reaches out to decide cases despite the risk of discursive paradox is certain to launch a good deal of new research by both political scientists and Supreme Court legal scholars, but it also speaks in important ways to many other fields within law and courts by encouraging us to place political salience, legal discursive meaning, and systemic legitimacy into a common analysis.

Thanks to the Award Committee: Jonathan Simon, University of California, Berkeley, chair; Sara Benesh, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; and Ronald Kahn, Oberlin College