Measuring Justice Scalia's Tenure

Measuring Justice Scalia's Tenure

Organisation: FiveThirtyEight (United States)

Publication Date: 04/10/2016

Size of team/newsroom:large


In a series of articles following the unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, FiveThirtyEight used a variety of datasets to walk readers through Scalia’s legacy on the court and how the fight to replace him was likely to unfold. Many journalistic outlets tackled these subjects, but a Supreme Court vacancy in a presidential election year kicks up a lot of dust; FiveThirtyEight’s careful, quantitative coverage provided readers with information and perspective that cut through the confusion -- all within a few hours of Scalia’s death. The first piece, “Obama Won’t Be Able To Replace Scalia With A Justice As Liberal As Sotomayor,” used an algorithmic model to measure how current and previous justices would fare in the current Senate, and found that few of them could now be confirmed. The second piece, “How Scalia Became The Most Influential Conservative Jurist Since The New Deal,” measured the mentions of Scalia in scanned books and found that he was the most-written about justice in the last 15 years. In “Scalia Was Almost Never The Most Conservative Justice On The Supreme Court,” the authors of the well-known Martin-Quinn scores quantified and plotted his rulings and found that he was almost never the most conservative justice on the court, and in fact moved leftward during the second half of his 30 years on the bench. The final piece, “A 4-4 Supreme Court Could Be Good For Unions And Voting Rights Advocates,” focused on several court prediction systems to forecast which cases would be most affected by Scalia’s death.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

What made our Scalia coverage special was its multi-method approach. Instead of the commonplace subjective punditry, we employed a multitude of datasets -- DW-Nominate, Segal-Cover ratings, Google’s n-gram database, all Supreme Court opinions going back to 1950 and Martin-Quinn scores -- to unpack for readers how Scalia affected U.S. law, what that effect looked like and what kind of justice President Obama could hope to get confirmed by the Senate. The result: Within days of Scalia’s death, we provided a quantitative but holistic picture of the justice’s influence with unusual breadth and depth.

Technologies used for this project:

The analysis in our Scalia coverage was done using Stata, R, Excel, Python and Adobe Illustrator, as well as our in-house charting tool, Chartbuilder.
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