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Tom Goldstein's Statistical Analysis of the Supreme Court Term

by Professor Will Huhn on August 19, 2009

in Wilson Huhn

     Tom Goldstein of published a statistical analysis of the 2008-2009 Supreme Court term that can be accessed here.  Some of his findings are summarized and discussed below.

     Goldstein reports that the Supreme Court decided slightly more cases (79) during 2008-2009 than in recent years.  This is still about half the number of decisions that were regularly handed down each term two decades ago before William Rehnquist became Chief Justice.  In this 2006 article for the New York Times Linda Greenhouse describes this downward trend and offers some possible explanations, including the elimination of mandatory appeals, more agreement among the lower courts in the interpretation of the law, less congressional legislation to evaluate, and a reluctance among the justices to vote to hear a case that they might end up "losing."

     Goldstein states that during 2008-2009 the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court in 75.9 percent of the cases that it decided.  This makes sense – the Supreme Court has the discretion to decide whether to take a case up on appeal, and it is far more likely to find it necessary to hear a case that it thinks may have been wrongly decided by the lower court.

     To no-one's surprise, Justice Kennedy retained his role as the "swing justice" among the Court's liberal and conservative blocs.  Goldstein reports that there were 29 cases in which the justices voted 5-4.  In 16 of these cases the Court split along ideological lines with the four liberals (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) arrayed against the four conservatives (Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas) and Justice Kennedy casting the deciding vote.  In those 16 cases Kennedy voted with the conservatives 11 times and with the liberals 5 times.  Looking at all 79 cases decided by the Court Justice Kennedy was "most likely to succeed" – Goldstein notes that Kennedy voted with the majority 92.4 percent of the time.  Justice Stevens had the lowest percentage of "victories" – he voted with the majority only 64.6 percent of the time.

     Goldstein also analyzes the extent to which the justices agree with each other, and these statistics measure the extent of the ideological division on the Court.  Roberts and Alito voted together 92 percent of the time, and Stevens and Souter were in agreement 87 percent of the time.  Stevens and Thomas, in contrast, voted together only 46 percent of the time, and only 19 percent of the time in divided cases.

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