Incentives and the SCOTUS Surprise on Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) surprised even veteran court watchers this week by refusing to hear a set of cases involving state-level bans (and reversals of those bans) of same-sex marriage. One lawyer offers a pretty convincing argument on why the Court decided not to weigh in on an issue that has such important consequences for large groups of people (and employers). At its heart, it’s all about individual justices’ incentives and the cost-benefit calculation justices had to make in the face of an uncertain outcome:

So why is the Roberts Court, not normally shy in jumping into controversial issues such as affirmative action or campaign finance law, ducking this one?

The answer may lie in the incentives facing the individual Justices rather than the approach of the Court as a whole. When you look at the choices available from the three different perspectives on this issue – liberals, swing votes, and conservatives – it becomes much easier to see why there weren’t the four votes required (out of the nine Justices) to hear this issue now. With no camp assured of victory if the court decided to hear the cases, the uncertainty may hold the key to the Justices’ thinking.

You can read the full blog post with the details of the explanation here. Regardless your position on the issue, this analysis of the justices’ likely reasoning in passing on the opportunity to settle the issue (at least for a period of time) illustrates how understanding individuals’ incentives helps to explain the expected–and not-so-expected–outcomes that shape the laws and institutions that help structure society at-large.


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