The Solicitor General and the United States Supreme Court: Executive Branch Influence and Judicial Decisions

Ryan C. Black and Ryan J. Owens

Book published by Cambridge University Press in 2012.


Does the United States Solicitor General influence Supreme Court justices? This is a fundamental question that remains unanswered by scholars. The Solicitor General appears before the Court more than any other litigant in the country. If she—or an attorney from her office—can influence justices to take positions contrary to their general aims, her reach would be vast and her power great. And, since the SG serves at the pleasure of the president, her influence over justices could be a coup for the president. Simply put, we cannot understand the Court, the separation of powers, or the development of legal doctrine without a better understanding of the Solicitor General and her office. Segal's comment, made over 20 years ago, still rings true today: "Our understanding of the Supreme Court will not be complete until the role of the solicitor general is better understood" (Segal 1988, 142-143).

Our goal is to determine whether Solicitors General can influence Supreme Court justices. We adhere to the following premise: "The measure of a Solicitor General's advocacy is not how often the Court agrees with him, but how often he has persuaded the Court to take a position it would not have taken without his advocacy" (McConnell 1988, 1115).

Accordingly, this book provides the first systematic, multifaceted empirical analysis of Solicitor General influence throughout the Supreme Court's decision making process. We examine whether the Office of the Solicitor General can influence justices during both the Court's agenda-setting stage and the merits termination stage, where we examine case dispositions and the SG's ability to influence opinion content and legal policy. We employ a set of unique research designs that allow us to infer direct influence.

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