Judge Sonia Sotomayor ⇒ Justice Sotomayor?

Justice Sotomayor?

Justice Souter’s recently announced retirement has generated significant speculation regarding the potential nominee President Obama might select.    

Barring some unknown skeleton in her closet, if President Obama seeks to (1) select a Federal Court of Appeals Judge and (2) increase the diversity of the Court on multiple dimensions …. well … Judge Sotomayor would have to be the frontrunner.  

The picture and graph statistics pictured above are drawn from our paper Hustle and Flow: A Social Network Analysis of the American Federal Judiciary.  In the paper, we offer a mapping of the social topology of the American Federal Judiciary.  Built upon data aggregated over the Natural Rehnquist Court (1995-2004), we find Judge Sotomayor holds a position of significant social prominence.  

To read more on operationalization, etc.—click on the slide above or click here.

A number of commentators have suggested President Obama might forgo nominating a sitting judge — instead choosing an academic or politician.  This is certainly a possibility and in that vein let me reveal my bias in favor of Gov. Jennifer Granholm (for whom I formerly worked). 

Justice Souter to Retire….Possible Replacements?…Here is a Mapping of Socially Prominent Jurists in the American Federal Judiciary

American Federal Judiciary

NPR’s Nina Totenberg is reporting that Justice Souter is planning to retire at the end of the current Supreme Court Term.  As noted in the NPR report, the short list of replacements may include Elena Kagan, Diane Wood and/or Sonia Sotomayor (who is in the network above near Justice Stevens).  If President Obama decides to look beyond this early short list, he might consider one of the socially prominent federal jurist mapped in above visualization. We have a much more detailed prior post on the underlying paper Hustle and Flow: A Social Network Analysis of the American Federal Judiciary located here.  To see the full visualization contained within the paper, click on the slide above or click here.       

Taking Judicial Content Seriously–Lupu & Fowler's Strategic Content Model

Roe v. Wade Citation Network

In my conversations with judicial politics scholars, many lament how many of our existing approaches tend to ignore opinion content.  For those interested in embedding opinion content into existing theories of judicial decision making … consider Yonatan LupuJames Fowler’s paper recently posted to the SSRN.  

The authors present a strategic model of judicial bargaining over opinion content.  They note … “we find that the Court generates opinions that are better grounded in law when more justices write concurring opinions.”  To generate the specification for “grounding in law” the authors use Kleinberg’s Hubs and Authorities Algorithm calculated at the time the opinion was authored. The Strategic Content Paper is available here. 

The visual above is drawn from a related Fowler project located here.  Another very worthwhile paper authored by FowlerJohnsonSpriggs, Jeon & Wahlbeck is located here.  

Tax Day! A First-Order History of the Supreme Court and Tax


Click to view the full image.

In honor of Tax Day, we’ve produced a simple time series representation of the Supreme Court and tax.  The above plot shows the how often the word “tax” occurs in the cases of  the Supreme Court, for each year – that is, what proportion of all words in every case in a given year are the word “tax.”  The data underneath includes non-procedural cases from 1790 to 2004.  The arrows highlight important legislation and cases for income tax as well.

Make sure to click through the image to view the full size.

Happy Tax Day!

When is the first term enough?: On approximation in social science

Research in the academic world suffers from the “hammer problem” – that is, the methods we use are often those that we have in our toolbox, not necessarily those that we should be using.  This is especially true in computational social science, where we often attempt to directly import well-developed methods from the hard sciences.

To prove the point, I’d like to highlight one example we’ve come across in our research.  In Leicht et al’s  Large-scale structure of time evolving citation networks, the authors apply two methods to a simplified representation of the United States Supreme Court citation network.  Both of these methods rely on complicated statistical algorithms and require iterative non-linear system solvers.  However, the results are consistent, and they detect “events” around 1900, 1940, and 1970.


One  first-order alternative to detecting significant “events” in the Court would be to count citations.  One might suspect, for instance, that the formation or destruction of law might go hand-in-hand with an acceleration or deceleration in the rate of citation.  Such a method is purely conjectural, but costs much less to implement than the methods discussed above.


This figure shows the number of outgoing citations per year in blue, as well as the ten-year moving average in purple.  The plot shows jumps that coincide very well with the plot from Leicht, et. al.  Thus, although only a first-order approximation to the underlying dynamics, this method would lead historians down a similar path with much less effort.

This example, though simple, is one that really hits home for me.  After a week of struggling to align interpretations and methods, this plot convinced me more than any eigenvector or Lagrangian system.  Perhaps more importantly, unlike the above methods, you can explain this plot to a lay audience in a fifteen minute talk.