Hustle and Flow: A Social Network Analysis of the American Federal Judiciary [Repost from 3/25]

Zoom on Network

Together with Derek Stafford from the University of Michigan Department of Political Science, Hustle and Flow: A Social Network Analysis of the American Federal Judiciary represents our initial foray into Computational Legal Studies. The full paper contains a number of interesting visualizations where we draw various federal judges together on the basis of their shared law clerks (1995-2004). The screen print above is a zoom very center of the center of the network.  Yellow Nodes represent Supreme Court Justices, Green Nodes represent Circuit Court Justices, Blue Nodes represent District Court Justices.

There exist many high quality formal models of judicial decision making including those considering decisions rendered by judges in judicial hierarchy, whistle blowing, etc. One component which might meaningfully contribute to the extent literature is the rigorous consideration of the social and professional relationships between jurists and the impacts (if any) these relationships impose upon outcomes. Indeed, from a modeling standpoint, we believe the “judicial game” is a game on a graph–one where an individual strategic jurist must take stock of time evolving social topology upon which he or she is operating. Even among judges of equal institutional rank, we observe jurists with widely variant levels social authority (specifically social authority follows a power law distribution).

So what does all of this mean? Take whistle blowing — the power law distribution implies that if the average judge has a whistle, the “super-judges” we identify within the paper could be said to have an air horn. With the goal of enriching positive political theory / formal modeling of the courts, we believe the development of a positive theory of judicial social structure can enrich our understanding of the dynamics of prestige and influence. In addition, we believe, at least in part, “judicial peer effects” can help legal doctrine socially spread across the network. In that vein, here is a view of our operationalization of the social landscape … a wide shot of the broader network visualized using the Kamada-Kawai visualization algorithm:

Here is the current abstract for the paper: Scholars have long asserted that social structure is an important feature of a variety of societal institutions. As part of a larger effort to develop a fully integrated model of judicial decision making, we argue that social structure-operationalized as the professional and social connections between judicial actors-partially directs outcomes in the hierarchical federal judiciary. Since different social structures impose dissimilar consequences upon outputs, the precursor to evaluating the doctrinal consequences that a given social structure imposes is a descriptive effort to characterize its properties. Given the difficulty associated with obtaining appropriate data for federal judges, it is necessary to rely upon a proxy measure to paint a picture of the social landscape. In the aggregate, we believe the flow of law clerks reflects a reasonable proxy for social and professional linkages between jurists. Having collected available information for all federal judicial law clerks employed by an Article III judge during the “natural” Rehnquist Court (1995-2004), we use these roughly 19,000 clerk events to craft a series of network based visualizations.   Using network analysis, our visualizations and subsequent analytics provide insight into the path of peer effects in the federal judiciary. For example, we find the distribution of “degrees” is highly skewed implying the social structure is dictated by a small number of socially prominent actors. Using a variety of centrality measures, we identify these socially prominent jurists. Next, we draw from the extant complexity literature and offer a possible generative process responsible for producing such inequality in social authority. While the complete adjudication of a generative process is beyond the scope of this article, our results contribute to a growing literature documenting the highly-skewed distribution of authority across the common law and its constitutive institutions.

The Clerkship Tournament: Supreme Court Edition [Repost from 6/3]

Picture 1

As part our multipart series on the clerkship tournament, here is a simple bar graph for the top placing law schools in the Supreme Court Clerkship Tourney. It is important to note that we do not threshold for the number of graduates per school. Specifically, we do not just divide by the number graduates per school because we have little theoretic reason to believe that placements linearly scale to differences in size of graduating classes. In other words, given we do not know the proper functional form — we just offer the raw data. For those interested in other posts, please click here for the law clerks tag.

Law as a Seamless Web … Poster for WIN Conference @ NYU Stern

Seamless Web Poster

As we mentioned in previous posts, Seadragon is a really cool product. Please note load times may vary depending upon your specific machine configuration as well as the strength of your internet connection. For those not familiar with how to operate it please see below. In our view, the Full Screen is best the way to go ….

Law as a Seamless Web? Part III

Seamless Web III

This is the third installment of posts related to our paper Law as a Seamless Web? Comparison of Various Network Representations of the United States Supreme Court Corpus (1791-2005) previous posts can be found (here) and (here). As previewed in the earlier posts, we believe comparing the Union, the Intersect and the Compliment of the SCOTUS semantic and citation networks is at the heart of an empirical evaluation of Law as a Seamless Web …. from the paper….

“Though law is almost certainly a web, questions regarding its interconnectedness remain. Building upon themes of Maitland, Professor Solum has properly raised questions as to whether or not the web of law is “seamless”. By leveraging the tools of computer science and applied graph theory, we believe that an empirical evaluation of this question is at last possible.  In that vein, consider Figure 9, which offers several possible topological locations that might be populated by components of the graphs discussed herein. We believe future research should consider the relevant information contained in the union, intersection, and complement of our citation and semantic networks.

While we leave a detailed substantive interpretation for subsequent work, it is worth broadly considering the information defined in Figure 9.  For example, the intersect (∩) displayed in Figure 9 defines the set of cases that feature both semantic similarity and a direct citation linkage. In general, these are likely communities of well-defined topical domains.  Of greater interest to an empirical evaluation of the law as a seamless web, is likely the magnitude and composition of the Citation Only and Semantic Only subsets.  Subject to future empirical investigation, we believe the Citation Only components of the graph may represent the exact type of concept exportation to and from particular semantic domains that would indeed make the law a seamless web.”

Institutional Rules, Strategic Behavior, Agenda Control & Inferences — Explaining Chief Justice Roberts Anomalous Decision in NAMUNDO

Punt Team

Agenda Control and Careful Inferences

What are the class of potential inferences one should draw when the Chief Justice behaves in a manner which would appear at odds with our prior understandings of his jurisprudence? As I have argued in my previous article Institutional Rules, Strategic Behavior and the Legacy of Chief Justice William Rehnquist: Setting the Record Straight on Dickerson v. United States, there is significant reason to be careful about the class of inferences one draws under conditions similar to those accompanying yesterday’s decision in NAMUNDO v. Holder.

A significant strain of the literature in political science is devoted to studying the power of agenda control. The primary power of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court is the power of opinion assignment. This includes the right of the Chief to assign to himself the task of opinion writing.  Of course, this authority is qualifed as it only applies when he finds himself in the majority coalition.  If he finds himself outside of the majority, the Senior Associate Justice in the majority is permitted to exercise this important authority.  

The opinion assignment norm provides a significant incentive for the Chief Justice to behave “strategically.”  Specifically, in instances where the majority of the court is unwilling to support his preferred outcome, the Chief still has an incentive to join the majority in order to do “damage control.”  For example, he can attempt to author a watered-down opinion or an opinion which leaves the major substantive issues for another day.  

The Ghost of Dickerson v. United States

Consider as an illustrative example, Justice Rehnquist’s behavior in the 2000 case, Dickerson v. United States.  In Dickerson, the Supreme Court was called to consider the ultimate constitutionality of its landmark decision in Miranda v. Arizona. Prior to the Court’s decision, even Miranda’s strongest supporters had expressed significant concern regarding its continued viability. As I sat in the audience on the day of the Dickerson decision, this concern was only heightened when Justice Rehnquist indicated he would deliver the court’s majority opinion.  

Chief Justice Rehnquist prior Miranda related jurisprudence indicated a significant hostility to the Court landmark 1966 ruling. In fact, in every decision prior to Miranda he either voted to limit or undercut the Court’s Miranda doctrine.  In 57 out of 57 prior cases, the Miranda doctrine had no friend in William Rehnquist. Between his decision in Dickerson and his death, the Rehnquist-led Court considered 5 major Miranda-related cases. In each of these cases, the Chief resumed exactly where he left off prior to Dickerson.  He consistently voted to undercut the holding and virtually ignored his own Dickerson opinion.       

Chief Justice Rehnquist’s former law clerk, Ted Cruz, writing about the Dickerson decision in a eulogy in the Harvard Law Review, essentially acknowledged the strategic nature of the decision “it was the best that could be gotten from the current members of the Court.” From a doctrinal perspective, his decision was fairly opaque. For example, in responding to questions regarding Dickerson’s logical underpinning Ted Cruz stated, “do not ask why, and please, never, ever, ever cite this opinion for any reason.”  

The Strategic Decision in NAMUNDO v. Holder?

Nearly four years after the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist, another socially important decision would be surprisingly authored by a Chief Justice who initially appeared hostile to the question at issue.  This time it was Chief Justice John Roberts, a jurist initially socialized in the ways of the high court in the early 1980’s chambers of then Justice William Rehnquist.

In yesterday’s decision in NAMUNDO v. Holder, Chief Justice Roberts authored an 8-1 decision. Leading election law scholars including Professor Rick Hasen have initially described it as “an interpretation of the Act virtually no lawyer thought was plausible.” The lesson from Dickerson and other such cases is strategic behavior on the part of the Chief is always possible. Once it is apparent he does not have the requisite votes to reach his desired policy outcome–what is a strategic Chief Justice to do?  Do damage control, limit the core holding or as Professor Gerken has characterized yesterday’s ruling, “punt.”  

Visualization of the Ideological History of the Supreme Court

USSC MQ Scores

Here is a cool visual for the Martin-Quinn Scores. For those of you not familiar, the Martin-Quinn paper and “MQ Scores” represented a significant breakthrough in the field of judicial politics. On that note, Stephen Jessee & Alexander Tahk have done a nice job both bringing their data up to date and extending their work.  For those interested, click on the visual above and check out all of the relevant links contained within this post.  

An Exchange in Need of Empirics and an Analytical or Computational Model


section 5

On a recent flight, I read Jeffrey Toobin’s New Yorker Article on Chief Justice Roberts entitled “No More Mr. Nice Guy”.  The exchange quoted above is drawn from this article. While I believe it is appropriate to engage empirical data where available, the underlying discussion is not one exclusively subjectable to empirical inquiry.  Rather, it is, at least in part, a question in need of a formal theoretic model. Justice Roberts and Mr. Katyal are implicitly discussing a “state of the world” not yet realized but which would be realized if the statute were not to exist. What would benefit the discussion is principled manner to adjudicate between these two inferences drawn above.  Namely, it would be useful to fully evaluate what behavior would likely follow if the statute were not to exist.

There exist a variety of mathematical modeling techniques which could inject some much needed rigor into the above discussion. To my knowledge, such an applied model has yet to be offered.  The Supreme Court’s decision in the matter is soon forthcoming. Given the nature of the exchange above, there is reason to believe that if Chief Justice Roberts prevails ….we will get our model as the “state of the world” discussed above will no longer be hypothetical…. 

Measuring the Centrality of Federal Judges

Centrality of Federal Judges

Above are some graph statistics from our paper Hustle and Flow: A Social Network Analysis of the American Federal Judiciary.  The paper measures the aggregated window of 1995-2005. These, of course, are not the only measures of centrality but they are commonly used in the network science literature. If you are interested — click through to the paper for a description of how these measures are calculated.  

We believe these and other elements of the paper offer a good cut on the question of social prestige within the American Federal Judiciary. For example, in the paper we offer a graph visualization where Judge now Justice Alito as well as Judge turned Attorney General Michael Mukasey occupy an extremely central social position (just outside of the Top 25).  We think this is useful because their social prestige is measured at a time period prior to their respective nominations. With appropriate control variables for the respective office in question … perhaps we might have been able to predict their nomination?

For purposes of the current Supreme Court opening and conditioned on the selection of a lower court justice with “blue team” credentials, we believe these graph statistics indicate Judge Sonia SotomayorJudge Merrick Garland , Judge William Fletcher & Judge David Tatel all occupy high levels of social prestige among their fellow judges and justices. Debate regarding qualifications of various individuals is likely to continue. While certainly not dispositive, we thought it appropriate to offer some social scientific evidence on the question.  

President Obama might go outside the tradtional Federal Court of Appeals judge on this round. For example, Governor Jennifer Granholm, Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appear to be on the short list. However, keep these names in mind as this is probably not President Obama’s last nomination to the high court.