The Constraint of Executive Power on Ideological Behavior: State Attorneys General as Ideological Partisans and Chief Prosecutors
Executive office holders in the United States are generally highly ideological partisans, like other American politicians. However, they also hold positions of power that give them interests in taking actions contrary to their ideological preferences. The public’s expectations of the office holder and their own self-interest in exercising power provide substantial cross-pressure against behaving in accordance with their ideological beliefs. I test the potential of these limitations by analyzing the behavior of state attorneys general. State AGs are, in most states, independently elected statewide executive actors who represent the state as its chief legal and prosecutorial officer. They are also ideological partisans. I argue that state AGs are incentivized to oppose defendants’ rights because of their job as a state prosecutor, even though American liberals and Democrats have favored defendants’ rights for decades. Analyzing amicus brief filings at the U.S. Supreme Court from 2008 to 2020, I find distinct differences between how Democratic state AGs treat criminal cases compared to how they treat cases that would not limit their own power. While their behavior in non-criminal cases conforms to their liberal reputations and other available measures of their ideology, their behavior in criminal cases is notably more conservative and is similar to the behavior of Republican AGs. I also find evidence of strategic silence by cross-pressured AGs. Collectively, this evidence points to the ability of power and self-interest to limit the performance of ideology, even in a highly polarized world.
DISCUSSANT: Michael Sances, Temple University
This is a Political Institutions and Political Economy Collaborative event.