Law and Political Economy at the Ford Center

The Law and Political Economy (LPE) encompasses diverse social science approaches to studying judges’ behavior, the development of law, and interactions between the judiciary and other branches of government.

Methods and Areas of Study

LPE utilizes methodologies from law, political science, and economics, including statistical and other empirical studies of judicial voting, strategic judicial behavior, and doctrinal development, as well as formal theoretical work from the field of positive political theory. We use these approaches to address issues at the intersection of the three primary disciplines, such as:
  • Judicial nomination process
  • Case outcome voting
  • Opinion writing
  • Coalition formation
  • Strategic formulation of legal doctrine
Across specific areas of study, LPE engages with the institutional constraints that judges face:
  • Horizontally, with other political actors
  • Vertically, throughout the judicial hierarchy
  • Internally, on multi-judge panels
But LPE does not simply apply economic and political science techniques to the courts. At its best, the field also involves the serious incorporation of the law. Specifically, LPE enables rigorous analysis of the development of legal doctrine, the application of judicial norms (such as stare decisis and judicial restraint), and strategic mechanisms available to judges within the bounds of judicial legitimacy. Thus as well as counting votes, LPE incorporates law into social science analysis — whether it is law being used as rhetorical flourish, as persuasion, or as actually representing strategy and outcomes.

LPE Leaders

Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Professors Tonja Jacobi and Emerson Tiller lead the Ford Center’s LPE effort.

  • Professor Jacobi’s work focuses on institutional constraints on judges and their strategic responses. Representative projects include an analysis of how opinion coalitions are formed, and how other justices split such coalitions to transform their own dissents into majorities; how judges signal which cases they are more interested in hearing; how they shape the nomination process in both early and late career stages; whether law and politics are truly separate dimensions in judicial decision-making; how judicial case outcomes should be measured. Doctrinally, she specializes in constitutional criminal procedure, and shows that many doctrines in this area create perverse incentives, leading to protection of the guilty and failure to protect the innocent.
  • Professor Tiller’s work has pioneered the study of legal doctrine as an institutional strategy for judges, whether as related to the horizontal, vertical, or internal dynamics of judicial decision-making mentioned above. He incorporates game theory, linguistics, and the notion of decision costs in formalizing and testing models of judicial strategy in both public (e.g., environmental law, administrative law) and private law (e.g., contract law) applications.