UT Researchers’ Statistical Model Predicts Sotomayor Will Be Most Liberal Justice

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KNOXVILLE — Researchers in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are predicting that newly confirmed Justice Sonia Sotomayor will cast a liberal vote in roughly 67 percent of cases during her first term on the Supreme Court, which will make her the most liberal member of the current court.

These predictions are based upon a statistical analysis of the voting patterns exhibited by previously confirmed Supreme Court justices.

The research was conducted by Hemant Sharma, now a lecturer in the political science department, as part of his recently completed doctoral dissertation. Sharma was assisted by John M. Scheb, the professor who directed his dissertation.

The analysis takes into account the political conditions in place at the time of a justice’s confirmation, including the presence of unified party control over the White House and the Senate, the president’s approval rating at the time of confirmation, the number of seats controlled by the majority party in the Senate, and the number of votes the nominee receives in the Senate confirmation process. It also includes whether the candidate was the president’s first choice, whether the candidate is a cross-party nominee, and the amount of prior judicial experience a candidate has.

The underlying theory is that unified party government, high presidential approval ratings and strong majority party control of the Senate all work to produce more extreme justices. On the other hand, the theory suggests that a candidate confirmed by a wide margin in the Senate will exhibit a more moderate voting pattern than a justice confirmed by a narrow margin. It also holds that second- or third-choice nominees will be less extreme than first choices, and that cross-party nominees will be less extreme than candidates from the president’s own party.

Using data on 31 prior Supreme Court nominees, the UT researchers have constructed models to predict how future nominees, once confirmed, will behave on the bench. The models predict that Justice Sotomayor will exhibit a liberal voting score of 71 percent in civil rights and civil liberties cases and a liberal voting score of 56 percent in economic cases. In light of the fact that the Supreme Court hears roughly three times more civil rights and civil liberties cases than economic cases, Sotomayor’s overall score is projected to be 67 percent.

That figure, when compared to the voting scores over the past three Supreme Court terms for the other members of the current court, would make Justice Sotomayor the Court’s most liberal member. The three-term liberal voting scores for the other eight justices are: Thomas (33 percent), Scalia (36 percent), Roberts (36 percent), Alito (36 percent), Kennedy (45 percent), Breyer (59 percent), Stevens (61 percent) and Ginsburg (61 percent).

Justice Souter, whom Sotomayor is replacing, exhibited an overall liberal score of 59 percent over the past three terms. As a result, researchers are projecting a slight liberal shift in the voting behavior of the Supreme Court as a whole.

C O N T A C T :

Hemant Sharma, (973-715-4048, hsharma@utk.edu)
John Scheb, (865-974-2845, scheb@utk.edu)
Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu)

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