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Syracuse Professor Explores ‘Judicial Politics in Polarized Times’

New book addresses ‘endemic patterns of litigation’ during Clinton, Bush, Obama eras

Feb 25, 2015 | Article by: Sarah Scalese


thomas keck headshot.jpg

Thomas Keck

Do judges serve as neutral legal umpires, unaccountable partisan activists, or political actors whose decisions conform to—rather than challenge—the democratic will?

That is one of the many questions Thomas Keck, a political scientist at Syracuse University, seeks to answer in his latest book, Judicial Politics in Polarized Times (The University of Chicago Press, 2014).

A Syracuse faculty member since 2002, Keck is dually appointed to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where he serves as an associate professor of political science and holds the Michael O. Sawyer Chair of Constitutional Law and Politics; and the College of Arts and Sciences, where he is an affiliate faculty member of the LGBT Studies Program.

Judicial Politics in Polarized Times provides a sweeping survey of litigation on abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, and gun rights across the Clinton, Bush, and Obama eras. 



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Keck reviews several widespread narratives about contemporary courts and argues that, while all of these stories capture the significance of judicial politics in polarized times, each one, in and of itself, can be misleading.

“Despite judges’ claims, actual legal decisions are not politically neutral products of disembodied legal texts,” says Keck, who chaired the political science department from 2011 to 2014. “At the same time, judges are not undermining democratic values by imposing their own preferences.” 

As a result, Americans are left with what Keck calls “endemic patterns of litigation,” with judges and the public pushing in the same direction.

“While advocates on both the left and right engage constantly in litigation to achieve their ends, neither side has consistently won,” he says. “Ultimately, judges respond not simply as umpires, activists, or political actors, but in light of distinctive judicial values and practices.”

Already, Judicial Politics in Polarized Times has drawn praise from colleagues. Gordon Silverstein, assistant dean for graduate programs at Yale Law School, calls it a “timely starting point” for conversations about the effectiveness of judicial review.

“This is a robust, measured, and, ultimately, very persuasive book that places judicial review in the United States in context, insisting—and providing compelling evidence to support—the conclusion that judicial review is neither savior nor threat,” he adds. 

Keck is also the author of The Most Activist Supreme Court in History: The Road to Modern Judicial Conservatism (The University of Chicago Press, 2004), as well as numerous articles and essays. 

Holder of the Sawyer Chair since 2009, Keck directs the Sawyer Law and Politics Program, an interdisciplinary initiative devoted to advancing teaching and research in the field of law and politics.

Prior to Syracuse, Keck taught at The University of Oklahoma. He earned a Ph.D. and master’s degree in political science from Rutgers University and a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College.

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Contact Information

Sarah Scalese
315-443-8085
sescales@syr.edu