Coding Case Law for Public Health Law Evaluation: A Methods Monograph for the Public Health Law Research Program (PHLR) Temple University Beasley School of Law
Public Health Law Research, November 2011
34 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2012
Date Written: November 26, 2011
This monograph explores the special considerations in coding text when the relevant legal materials are judicial decisions. The content of case law merits careful study not simply because judicial opinions reflect or respond to the law, but because they are the law. But, more than this, judicial pinions are detailed repositories that show what kinds of disputes come before courts, how the parties frame their disputes, and how judges reason to their conclusions.
Content analysis of case law boils down to three steps: 1) selecting cases; 2) coding cases; and 3) analyzing (often through statistics) the case coding. Insights gained from content analysis of large numbers of opinions supplement the deeper understanding of individual opinions that comes from traditional interpretive legal research techniques. The content of judicial opinions can be important in the study of the broader social, economic, and political systems that interact with judicial precedent, but cases are also well worth scientific study in their own right. For instance, content analysis can identify previously-unnoticed patterns that warrant deeper study, or sometimes correct misimpressions based on more ad hoc surveys of atypical cases.
The major limitation of content analysis is that facts and reasons recorded in judicial opinions cannot be treated as accurate and complete. Therefore, researchers should be cautious about the meanings they attach to observations made through content analysis. With this caveat in mind, I describe a range of acceptable and best practices for systematically selecting relevant cases, forming coding categories, training coders, and testing for coding reliability.
Keywords: public health law research, coding law, empirical legal studies
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