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Predicting the Behavior of the Supreme Court

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Predicting the Behavior of the Supreme Court

  1. 1. Predicting the Behavior of the Supreme Court Josh Blackman (South Texas College of Law) Daniel Martin Katz (Michigan State College of Law) Michael J. Bommarito (Michigan State College of Law)
  2. 2. FantasySCOTUS
  3. 3. Next Evolution
  4. 4. 60 Years
  5. 5. 32 Justices
  6. 6. 12 Presidents
  7. 7. 7,700 Opinions
  8. 8. 69.7% Accuracy for Case Outcomes
  9. 9. 70.9% Accuracy for Justice Predictions
  10. 10. Frankfurter Harlan Powell
  11. 11. O’Connor Kennedy
  12. 12. Brennan Marshall Thomas
  13. 13. Justice Stevens (1975-2010) Justice Rehnquist (‘72-86) C.J. Rehnquist (‘86-05)
  14. 14. Extremely Randomized Trees
  15. 15. OT 2014 FantasySCOTUS Tournament
  16. 16. 10/6/2014
  17. 17. Not Man v. Machine
  18. 18. Man + Machine
  19. 19. Predicting the Behavior of the Supreme Court Josh Blackman (South Texas College of Law) JoshBlackman.com @JoshMBlackman JoshBlackman@gmail.com FantasySCOTUS.net LexPredict.com

Editor's Notes

  • In a new article, my co-authors Daniel Martin Katz, Michael J. Bommarito II, and I have designed a general approach to predicting the behavior of the Supreme Court of the United States. Using only data available prior to the date of decision, our model correctly identifies 69.7% of the Court’s overall affirm and reverse decisions and correctly forecasts 70.9% of the votes of individual justices across 7,700 cases and more than 68,000 justice votes.
  • We begin making forward prediction starting with the first case of the Warren Court in 1953, through the end of the 2012-2013 term. For each of the predictions, offered over 60 years–7,700 cases and in excess of 68,000 individual justice votes–we only rely on data that would have been available prior to the Court’s decision. In effect, we generated a new round of predictions every day of every Supreme Court term since 1953. With this data, through a method of machine-learning known as “extremely randomized trees,” and a process known as feature-engineering, we were able to build a model that can generate Justice-by-Justice predictions for any case. Applying the extremely randomized trees approach to each case from 1953-2013, our model correctly forecasts 69.7% of Case Outcomes and 70.9% of Justice Level Vote Outcomes over the sixty year period.
  • In 2009, I created FantasySCOTUS. What started off as a joke, and began as a hastily-put-together website, has grown beyond my wildest imagination. Now, we have over 20,000 players who make predictions about how the Justices will decide cases. In an article I co-authored in 2011, we found that our prediction market was strikingly accurate, with the power predictors hitting a 75% accuracy rate in a given year.
  • Explain wisdom of the crowds.
  • But, we aren’t perfect. In fact, the Supreme Court is a very bad court to predict for because the cases are often so unpredictable and not bound by precedents
  • We weren’t certain on this case (not statistically significant). 56/44. Intrade had it over 70%.
    weakness of crowdsourcing at Supreme Court—controversial cases. Lower courts less controversial, easier to predict.
  • Limitations of. crowdsourcing
  • Themes: Not just about constitutional law. 1. Clash of all three branches. 2. Popular Constitutionalism. 3. Politics of Law (AIA, Taxing power, Medicaid Arguments, 2012 Election).
  • We begin making forward prediction starting with the first case of the Warren Court in 1953, through the end of the 2012-2013 term. For each of the predictions, offered over 60 years–7,700 cases and in excess of 68,000 individual justice votes–we only rely on data that would have been available prior to the Court’s decision. In effect, we generated a new round of predictions every day of every Supreme Court term since 1953. With this data, through a method of machine-learning known as “extremely randomized trees,” and a process known as feature-engineering, we were able to build a model that can generate Justice-by-Justice predictions for any case. Applying the extremely randomized trees approach to each case from 1953-2013, our model correctly forecasts 69.7% of Case Outcomes and 70.9% of Justice Level Vote Outcomes over the sixty year period.
  • We begin making forward prediction starting with the first case of the Warren Court in 1953, through the end of the 2012-2013 term. For each of the predictions, offered over 60 years–7,700 cases and in excess of 68,000 individual justice votes–we only rely on data that would have been available prior to the Court’s decision. In effect, we generated a new round of predictions every day of every Supreme Court term since 1953. With this data, through a method of machine-learning known as “extremely randomized trees,” and a process known as feature-engineering, we were able to build a model that can generate Justice-by-Justice predictions for any case. Applying the extremely randomized trees approach to each case from 1953-2013, our model correctly forecasts 69.7% of Case Outcomes and 70.9% of Justice Level Vote Outcomes over the sixty year period.
  • We begin making forward prediction starting with the first case of the Warren Court in 1953, through the end of the 2012-2013 term. For each of the predictions, offered over 60 years–7,700 cases and in excess of 68,000 individual justice votes–we only rely on data that would have been available prior to the Court’s decision. In effect, we generated a new round of predictions every day of every Supreme Court term since 1953. With this data, through a method of machine-learning known as “extremely randomized trees,” and a process known as feature-engineering, we were able to build a model that can generate Justice-by-Justice predictions for any case. Applying the extremely randomized trees approach to each case from 1953-2013, our model correctly forecasts 69.7% of Case Outcomes and 70.9% of Justice Level Vote Outcomes over the sixty year period.
  • 32 Justices
  • We begin making forward prediction starting with the first case of the Warren Court in 1953, through the end of the 2012-2013 term. For each of the predictions, offered over 60 years–7,700 cases and in excess of 68,000 individual justice votes–we only rely on data that would have been available prior to the Court’s decision. In effect, we generated a new round of predictions every day of every Supreme Court term since 1953. With this data, through a method of machine-learning known as “extremely randomized trees,” and a process known as feature-engineering, we were able to build a model that can generate Justice-by-Justice predictions for any case. Applying the extremely randomized trees approach to each case from 1953-2013, our model correctly forecasts 69.7% of Case Outcomes and 70.9% of Justice Level Vote Outcomes over the sixty year period.
  • 7,700 Cases, 68,000 individual justice votes. 200 Volumes of the U.S. Reports (347-556)
  • We begin making forward prediction starting with the first case of the Warren Court in 1953, through the end of the 2012-2013 term. For each of the predictions, offered over 60 years–7,700 cases and in excess of 68,000 individual justice votes–we only rely on data that would have been available prior to the Court’s decision. In effect, we generated a new round of predictions every day of every Supreme Court term since 1953. With this data, through a method of machine-learning known as “extremely randomized trees,” and a process known as feature-engineering, we were able to build a model that can generate Justice-by-Justice predictions for any case. Applying the extremely randomized trees approach to each case from 1953-2013, our model correctly forecasts 69.7% of Case Outcomes and 70.9% of Justice Level Vote Outcomes over the sixty year period.
  • This graph illustrates our accuracy rate over the past six decades. Although our accurate rate fluctuates year-to-year–as low as 60% and as high as 80%–the best fit line hovers right around 71%. We tended to be a bit more accurate during the Warren and Burger courts than during the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts.Recent courts have had much more variability.
  • Our model tracks the commonplace intuition that 9-0 reversals are easier to forecast than 5-4 reversals. While our performance between these categories is somewhat close in certain years, we consistently perform better in unanimous reversal cases than in cases which feature disagreement between justices. We also perform better on cases with a vote of 9-0 to affirm than in cases that affirm through a divided court.
  • Overall, we have a 70.9% accuracy rate for justice predictions. Some justices were harder to predict than others. To illustrate the “predictability” of a Justice, we generated a heat map. On this map, we’ve plotted each Justice who has served on the Court, and for each year added a shaded box. The more green the cell, the more predictable the Justice in that year. Our method performs well at predicting certain Justices and not as well on others.
  • For example, Justices Harlan, Frankfurter, and Burton prove comparatively difficult to predict. All of these Justices are closer to the ideological center.
  • By contrast, our method is fairly accurate at predicting the behavior of Justices Douglas, Brennan, and Thomas. These justices are quite far from the ideological center.
  • There are, of course, notable exceptions. Justice Stevens begins as a difficult to predict justice but over time becomes increasingly easier to predict. In his years as an Associate Justice our performance in predicting William Rehnquist is relatively strong. This changes almost immediately following his elevation to Chief Justice in 1986 when our performance begins to decline. Our model learns, and can track a Justice’s shifting throughout his or her tenure from appointment till retirement.
  • So how does our algorithm work? Our model generates many randomized decision trees that try to predict the outcome of the cases, with different variables receiving different weights. This is known as the “extremely randomized trees” method. Then, the model compares the predictions of the trees to what actually happened, and learns what works, and what doesn’t. This process is repeated process many, many times, to calculate the weights that should be afforded to different variables. In the end, the model creates a general model to predict all cases across all courts. You can download all of our source code here.
  • This general model is represented by this graph, which lists the 90+ variables we consider for each case, and their relevant weights. Collectively, individual case features account for approximately 23% of predictive power while Justice and Court level background information account for just 4.4%. Much of the predictive power of our model is driven by tracking a variety of behavioral trends. This includes tracking the ideological direction of overall voting trends as well as the voting behavior of various justices. Differences in these trends prove particular useful for prediction. These include general and issue specific differences between individual justices and the balance of the Court as well as ideological differences between the Supreme Court and lower courts. Contrary to what many may think, it’s not all about ideology. The identity of the petitioner, respondent, what the cause of action is, what Circuit the case arises from, and other case-specific features are very significant.
  • This general model is represented by this graph, which lists the 90+ variables we consider for each case, and their relevant weights. Collectively, individual case features account for approximately 23% of predictive power while Justice and Court level background information account for just 4.4%. Much of the predictive power of our model is driven by tracking a variety of behavioral trends. This includes tracking the ideological direction of overall voting trends as well as the voting behavior of various justices. Differences in these trends prove particular useful for prediction. These include general and issue specific differences between individual justices and the balance of the Court as well as ideological differences between the Supreme Court and lower courts. Contrary to what many may think, it’s not all about ideology. The identity of the petitioner, respondent, what the cause of action is, what Circuit the case arises from, and other case-specific features are very significant.
  • This general model is represented by this graph, which lists the 90+ variables we consider for each case, and their relevant weights. Collectively, individual case features account for approximately 23% of predictive power while Justice and Court level background information account for just 4.4%. Much of the predictive power of our model is driven by tracking a variety of behavioral trends. This includes tracking the ideological direction of overall voting trends as well as the voting behavior of various justices. Differences in these trends prove particular useful for prediction. These include general and issue specific differences between individual justices and the balance of the Court as well as ideological differences between the Supreme Court and lower courts. Contrary to what many may think, it’s not all about ideology. The identity of the petitioner, respondent, what the cause of action is, what Circuit the case arises from, and other case-specific features are very significant.
  • Not man v. Machine
  • Man + Machine
  • Unfortunately, lawyers are very, very bad at viewing law like data. Lawyers are looking in the wrong spot. They look at the opinions. Opinions are very hard to analyze. Very subjective. Requires coding, very difficult and time consuming.
    But that’s where data and computer scientists can help. My bg is in CS before law school.
    Data. We need data. About everything.

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