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A Quantitative Analysis of Writing Style on the U.S. Supreme Court

62 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2015 Last revised: 26 Jun 2015

Keith Carlson

Dartmouth College

Michael A. Livermore

University of Virginia School of Law

Daniel Rockmore

Dartmouth College - Department of Mathematics; Dartmouth College - Department of Computer Science

Date Written: June 25, 2015

Abstract

This paper presents the results of a quantitative analysis of writing style for the entire corpus of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The basis for this analysis is frequency of function words, which has been found to be a useful “stylistic fingerprint” and which we use as a general proxy for the stylistic features of a text or group of texts. Based on this stylistic fingerprint measure, we examine temporal trends on the Court, verifying that there is a “style of the time” and that contemporaneous Justices are more stylistically similar to their peers than to temporally remote Justices. We examine potential “internal” causes of stylistic changes, and conduct an in-depth analysis of the role of the modern institution of the judicial clerk in influencing writing style on the Court. Using two different measures of stylistic consistency, one measuring intra-year consistency on the Court and the other examining inter-year consistency for individual Justices, we find evidence that clerks have increased the institutional consistency of the Court, but have reduced the individual consistency of the Justices.

Keywords: writing style; U.S. Supreme Court; function words; judicial clerks

Suggested Citation

Carlson, Keith and Livermore, Michael A. and Rockmore, Daniel, A Quantitative Analysis of Writing Style on the U.S. Supreme Court (June 25, 2015). Washington University Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 6, 2016; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 3. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2554516

Keith Carlson

Dartmouth College ( email )

Hanover, NH 03755
United States

Michael A. Livermore (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

Daniel Rockmore

Dartmouth College - Department of Mathematics ( email )

United States

Dartmouth College - Department of Computer Science ( email )

United States

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