James L. Gibson and Michael J. Nelson

Feb 12, 2024

Judging Inequality

State Supreme Courts and the Inequality Crisis

Russell Sage Foundation 2021

Soaring levels of political, legal, economic, and social inequality have been documented by social scientists – but the public conversation and scholarship on inequality has not examined the role of state law and state courts in establishing policies that significantly affect inequality. Political scientists James L. Gibson and Michael J. Nelson analyze their original database of nearly 6,000 decisions made by over 900 judges on 50 state supreme courts over a quarter century to demonstrate how state high courts craft policy. The fifty state supreme courts shape American inequality in two ways: through substantive policy decisions that fail to advance equality and by rulings favoring more privileged litigants (typically known as "upperdogs"). 

Judging Inequality: State Supreme Courts and the Inequality Crisis (Russell Sage, 2021) focuses on court-made public policy on issues including educational equity and adequacy, LGBTQ+ rights, and worker's rights. The conventional wisdom assumes that courts protect underdogs from majorities but Gibson and Nelson demonstrate that judges most often favor dominant political elites and coalitions. As such, courts are unlikely to serve as an independent force against the rise of inequality in the United States.

James Gibson is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government at Washington University in Saint Louis. His research interests are in Law and Politics, Comparative Politics, and American Politics.

Michael Nelson is a Professor of Political Science at Penn State University. He studies judicial politics and U.S. state politics, especially public attitudes toward law and courts, judicial behavior, and the politics of court reform. Michael was a guest on the New Books Network for the The Elevator Effect, a book he co-wrote with Morgan Hazelton and Rachael K. Hinkle in 2023.

In the podcast, we mention Dr. Gibson’s brand new article regarding the Dobbs abortion case: “Losing legitimacy: The challenges of the Dobbs ruling to conventional legitimacy theory” from the American Journal of Political Science.

Daniela Lavergne served as the editorial assistant for this podcast.

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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Susan Liebell

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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