A Computational Analysis Of Oral Argument In The Supreme Court

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Cornell Journal of Law and Policy


As the most public component of the Supreme Court’s decision-making process, oral argument receives an out-sized share of attention in the popular media. Despite its prominence, however, the basic function and operation of oral argument as an institution remains poorly understood, as political scientists and legal scholars continue to debate even the most fundamental questions about its role.

Past study of oral argument has tended to focus on discrete, quantifiable attributes of oral argument, such as the number of questions asked to each advocate, the party of the Justices’ appointing president, or the ideological implications of the case on appeal. Such studies allow broad generalizations about oral argument and judicial decision making: Justices tend to vote in accordance with their ideological preferences, and they tend to ask more questions when they are skeptical of a party’s position. But they tell us little about the actual goings on at oral argument—the running dialog between Justice and advocate that is the heart of the institution.

This Article fills that void, using machine learning techniques to, for the first time, construct predictive models of judicial decision making based not on oral argument’s superficial features or on factors external to oral argument, such as where the case falls on a liberal-conservative spectrum, but on the actual content of the oral argument itself—the Justices’ questions to each side. The resultant models offer an important new window into aspects of oral argument that have long resisted empirical study, including the Justices’ individual questioning styles, how each expresses skepticism, and which of the Justices’ questions are most central to oral argument dialog.

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Publication Date

Spring 2019