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Perspectives on the Supreme Court

May 09, 2012

Written by Genevieve Tung, Biddle Intern

As the end of the 2011-2012 Supreme Court term approaches, all eyes will be on First Street, anticipating a slew of important arguments and opinions. Law students, constitutional scholars and federal litigators will have lots to talk about before the end of June. Beyond parsing the newest decisions, however, there are many other ways to examine the Court and its body of work. Empirical legal researchers, in particular, have made great contributions to the study of SCOTUS.
For one data-focused approach, check out The Supreme Court Database, for “definitive source for researchers, students, journalists, and citizens interested in the U.S. Supreme Court.” This multi-talented tool was designed by law and political science scholars from several top universities, including Penn Law’s own Ted Ruger. The Database was designed to be easy to use, even for non-social scientists, and traces back to the Vinson Court (1946). The Analysis Specification forms can help you build queries and answer questions like, “How often has the Supreme Court declared acts of congress unconstitutional?” or “Which justice is most supportive of civil rights?” 
Law professors and political scientists Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn have created The Ideological History of the Supreme Court (1937-2007), a graphical representation of “the relative location of each U.S. Supreme Court justice on an ideological continuum.” This visualization uses “Martin-Quinn” scores to assign each justice a relative political affiliation; the more saturated the color, the more liberal or conservative the jurist. Each seat on the court is displayed longitudinally, making it easy to sample the Court’s ideological complexion at a given point in history.
Finally, the Supreme Court Opinion Writing Database allows users to “part the velvet curtains” of the Court’s inner chambers by extracting quantifiable data from the internal memoranda and draft opinions of the justices who served on the Burger court (1969-1986). This data “allows one to view in detail how the Justices negotiated with one another over the course of a case’s deliberations.”