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The influence of U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions depends critically on how these opinions are received and treated by lower courts, which decide the vast majority of legal disputes. We argue that the retirement of Justices on the Supreme Court serves as a simple heuristic device for lower court judges in deciding how much deference to show to Supreme Court precedent. Using a unique dataset of the treatment of all Supreme Court majority opinions in the courts of appeals from 1953 to 2012, we find that negative treatments of Supreme Court opinions increase, and positive treatments decrease, as the Justices who supported a decision retire from the Court. Importantly, this effect exists over and above the impact of retirements on the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Judicial opinions, judicial process, Judges—retirement, Appellate courts