Social Learning Behind Closed Doors:
Evidence from Seniority Voting in the US Supreme Court
We analyze the consequences of the seniority voting rule on the extent to which Supreme Court justices learn from each other’s actions. We provide causal evidence that justices incorporate the votes of their senior colleagues at conference as deter- mined by the voting mechanism. To explain this evidence, we develop and estimate a model of sequential voting in the Court with social learning. In the model, justices are uncertain about the facts of the case and take into consideration their preference biases, their own information and the choices of senior justices. We show that the information contained in senior justices’ votes affects the Court’s disposition in 18% of cases. We provide a measure of the quality of the Court’s dispositions under se- niority voting relative to alternative voting mechanisms. We find that the quality of the Court’s dispositions would have improved under an anti-seniority rule, in which junior justices are allowed to vote first.
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