Coalition Networks and Policy Learning: Interest Groups on the Losing Side of Legal Change

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Virginia Tech

Network, organizational, and policy learning literatures indicate that when interest groups face failure they will seek out alternative ideas and strategies that will enhance their potential for future success. Research with regard to interest groups and legal change has found that interest groups, using arguments that were once accepted as the legal standard for Supreme Court decisions, were unwilling or unable to alter their arguments when the Court reversed its position on these legal standards. This research project examined the conflicting findings of these literatures. Using the Advocacy Coalition Framework as a guide, this project studied the separationist advocacy coalition in cases regarding state aid to elementary and secondary sectarian schools from 1971 to 2002. The legal briefs filed by members of the separationist advocacy coalition with the Court were examined using content analysis to track changes in their legal arguments. Elite interviews were then conducted to gain an understanding of the rationale for results found in the content analysis. The research expectation was that the separationist advocacy coalition would seek out and incorporate into their briefs new and innovative legal arguments to promote their policy goals.

The research results demonstrated that prior to legal change interest groups did seek out and incorporate new legal arguments borrowed from other fora and sought to expand or reinterpret established legal arguments to better aid their policy goals. The changes that seemed to have the potential for adoption by the Court were quickly incorporated into the briefs of the other members of the coalition. Following legal change interest groups continued to analyze the decisions of the Court in order to seek out the best possible legal arguments to use in their briefs; however, the main focus of legal arguments examined and used by the coalition narrowed to those cited by the swing justice in the funding cases. Two innovative arguments were developed, but were either ignored or considered unsuitable, and were not used by the other members of the coalition. Counter to this project's research expectations new and innovative legal arguments were not adopted by the coalition. As the Court discontinued the use of various legal arguments the coalition quickly responded to these changes and dropped those obsolete legal arguments. Therefore, contrary to prior research, the interest groups and the coalition altered their arguments following legal change. Only those interest groups who no longer participated in coalition discussions reverted back to using pre-legal change arguments. Learning continued to occur in the coalition following legal change; however, the focus of analysis and the pool of arguments deemed worthy of use narrowed considerably.

Advocacy Coalitions, Interest Groups, Legal Change, Policy Learning, Establishment Clause