Michael Livermore

Is the Supreme Court Acting Less Like a Court?

CO-AUTHORS Daniel N. Rockmore


As the pinnacle of the judicial branch, the U.S. Supreme Court is necessarily involved in some of the highest-profile, most controversial and most political cases across the country. And it is one of the most widely respected government institutions in the country. Some of its reputation may be because the justices are not seen as mere “politicians in robes.”

Research also tells us people respect the Supreme Court in part because it shares traditions and pageantry with the larger judicial system – such as judges in robes wielding gavels. As members of a team of legal scholars and information scientists who use computational methods to study the judicial system, we wondered whether another potential source of the Supreme Court’s public esteem is its use of language.

Like other courts, the Supreme Court doesn’t announce its rulings with one-line tweets, for example, the way many politicians declare their intentions to vote for or against legislative bills. Rather, it issues lengthy documents setting out facts and legal precedents and connecting them to each other in ways that both declare an outcome and explain (or object to) how the court reached that decision. The more these written opinions suggest the court is set apart from the political fray, the more they can help its reputation.

But how can we know if the Supreme Court is writing like a judicial body rather than a more political institution? One way is to compare its decisions to those issued by the next-highest level of federal courts, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, which are widely perceived to be less politically partisan and more focused on addressing run-of-the-mill legal issues. Our comparison found that from 1951 to 2007, Supreme Court opinions have indeed become increasingly different in their content from opinions issued by lower federal courts, indicating that over time, the court appears to be drifting away from its judicial roots.


Michael A. Livermore & Daniel N. Rockmore, Is the Supreme Court Acting Less Like a Court?, Conversation (April 12, 2017).

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