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Academic highlight: Style versus substance

Scholars are now analyzing Supreme Court opinions for their style as well as their substance.    Keith Carlson (a computer scientist), Michael A. Livermore (a law professor), and Daniel Rockmore (a mathematician) have just posted on SSRN a quantitative analysis of the writing style of all Supreme Court opinions between 1791 and 2008. Their study provides some interesting data for avid SCOTUS watchers:  They ranked each Justice by the “friendliness” of their opinions, noted changes in the complexity of Court’s use of language, and found evidence to suggest that the Justices are relying more heavily on law clerks to draft their opinions.

The authors ranked all the Justices from “friendliest” to “least friendly” by subtracting each Justice’s percentage use of negative words (such as “two-faced,” “admonish,” and “problematic”) from their percentage use of positive words (such as “adventurous” and “preeminent”) to generate a “friendliness score.”  By their measure, Chief Justice Jay was the friendliest Justice, and Justice Johnson the least.  (Justices Alito, Breyer, Thomas, Kennedy, and the late Chief Justice Rehnquist are right behind Johnson, in that order).  Also interesting is the authors’ finding that there is a significant negative correlation between a Justice’s length of service and her friendliness score.  In other words, the longer a Justice is on the bench, the less friendly her opinions become.

The study also found that Justices today write at a lower grade level than in the past.  (The authors use the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score, which is based on words per sentence and syllables per word.)  But as the authors are quick to say themselves, this does not mean that the modern Court’s reasoning is less sophisticated, or that its writing is of lower quality.  (As I like to tell my students, good writing should not be equated with complicated syntax.)

Finally, the authors found that over the last hundred years, the Court’s opinions have become more consistent in style over the course of a single Term, but less consistent from one year to the next.  One possible explanation for this finding would be that Supreme Court law clerks, who serve for only a year, are now playing a larger role in drafting the opinions.

Recommended Citation: Amanda Frost, Academic highlight: Style versus substance, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 27, 2015, 12:16 PM),