What does it mean when justices reference each other at oral argument?

What’s in a name?

Previously, we showed that justices often refer to advocates by name as a form of “throat clearing,” that is, using prefatory words to ease into interrupting an advocate. Since interruptions are highly predictive of justices voting against the person they interrupt, that may suggest justices use of an advocate’s name is likely to signal disagreement. Is the pattern the same when justices use each other’s names? There is reason to think not: the justices may refer to each when they want an advocate to return to a question of shared interest. In this post, we begin to explore the phenomena of justice-to-justice name checking and conclude that, although there is significant variation between justices and over time, the practice is highly correlated with, and predictive of, agreement among the justices.

Judicial cross-references over time

As we have shown elsewhere, oral argument has changed significantly in recent decades, so the first natural question is whether judicial cross-references have changed also. The following figure shows a distinct shift in the practice of justice-to-justice name-checking over time. The figure shows the rate of justices referring to each other by name at oral argument from the 1985 to 2017 Terms, normalized per thousand words spoken by the justices.

Justices Naming Other Justices at Supreme Court Oral Argument (1985-2017 Terms)

It is important to normalize figures by word count in order to adjust for the fact that the justices talk more during oral argument than they used to. In the mid-1990s, the justices began to play a far more active role in oral argument; the justices now talk for about 13 minutes more in the course of a 60-minute proceeding than they did in the pre-1995 era. . Yet even controlling for that enormous upward shift in judicial verbosity, justices referring to each other by name has measurably increased over the last 30 years. Since 2007, the rate of justice-to-justice name checking has been consistently above one per thousand words. Given the competitive cut and thrust of oral argument, that makes name-checking a significant part of the dialogue among the justices.

Why the increase has occurred is a matter of interpretation. At least part of the cause is likely to be a response to the other dramatic changes we have observed in oral argument, in particular the significant increase in judicial activity at oral argument. With justices talking so much more and interrupting each other and the advocates more often, and the advocates interrupting back at greater rates, it is easy to have questions go unanswered or partially answered. As such, we would expect justices to refer back to earlier questions that they want to hear the answer to.

That raises the associated question of when the justices refer back to each other’s questions. If the above interpretation is correct, it suggests that Justice A will be refer to Justice B when he or she wants an advocate to complete a previously disrupted answer to Justice B’s question. That in turn suggests that cross-references will occur among justices who are likely to agree rather than to disagree.

The relationship between agreement and justice-to-justice name checking

The following figure explores that agreement-based intuition. It shows the rate of judicial cross-references, once again normalized per thousand words spoken by the justices, but this time divided among whether the cross-references occur between justices who ultimately vote together, or those who ultimately disagree, in the case at hand.

Justices Naming Other Justices at Supreme Court Oral Argument (1985-2017 Terms) (Agree, Disagree)

The results support the interpretation above: justices cross reference each other about three times as often when they will ultimately agree with the person they are cross-referencing than when with they will ultimately disagree. This means that whereas we have a “disagreement gap” for justices interrupting advocates, we have an “agreement gap” between justices cross-referencing each other. (Note we could also develop a disagreement gap between justices, as Jacobi and Rozema’s research shows interruptions are associated with future disagreement among pairs of justices).

Note also that the very large increase seen in the first figure is primarily being driven by an increase in justices cross-referencing those with whom they agree, rather than among justices who disagree. Put another way, while there has always been a tendency to more often cross reference one’s friends than one’s foes, the difference is considerably increasing in the last three decades. This result suggests that cross-references may be a counter-strategy to the more conflictual strategies we have previously highlighted, particularly of taking up the time of the advocate with whom a justice disagrees. By pointing an advocate back to a question of a future ally, the justice is emphasizing what he or she agrees with, rather than solely what he or she disagrees with.

In a time of increasing partisan division on the Court, mirroring the increased partisan conflict in Congress and among the public, here at least we have a manifestation of agreement rather than disagreement. Of course, agreeing with one’s allies is a form of tribalism, as much as disagreeing with one’s foes, but next week we explore in more detail which justices specifically cross reference which other justices, and the broader implications of such behavioral patterns.

The importance of empirical analysis (with forecasts of Bucklew & Madison)

The two Eighth Amendment cases show hard cases make for hard predictions

Bad facts make bad law. So too, hard cases make for hard predictions. The Court’s two current death penalty cases, illustrate both phenomena. But these cases also illustrate the added value of empirical analysis of oral argument over purely qualitative or impressionistic readings.

The Supreme Court’s two current pending death penalty cases both have very peculiar facts. In Bucklew v. Precythe, argued last week, the prisoner argues that execution by lethal injection would be cruel and unusual given his particular medical history. Madison v. Alabama, argued on October 2nd, presents the question of whether a prisoner can be executed for a crime he cannot recall.

The Supreme Court had the option of taking a case raising a question with potentially much broader significance for Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Hidalgo v. Arizona challenged whether Arizona’s death penalty legislation insufficiently narrowed application of the ultimate punishment. True to form, the Supreme Court avoided that important question of the frequency of the ultimate punishment, and focused instead on two cases raising as applied challenges, with limited applications for the 2,743 people currently on death row.

Forecast of Bucklew v. Precythe

Argument in Bucklew v. Precythe involved delving into the grisly facts of Petitioner’s medical condition and the painful possibilities involved in his execution. Along the way, the argument saw some unusual judicial behavior. Immediately, Justice Sotomayor began grilling Petitioner’s advocate for the lack of a clear record on those facts, and whether the horrific nature of his death could simply be avoided by the trach already installed in his throat.

ScotusOA prediction based on the oral argument in Bucklew v Precythe

Commentators on the First Mondays podcast suggested that this interplay may indicate that Petitioner’s advocate may have lost Justice Sotomayor, which would make it “tough” to win, given her general reliable pro-defendant vote. This much-qualified prediction misunderstands what is going on. Although Sotomayor was very active in questioning the Petitioner, and that level of activity often signals disagreement, she was even more active during Respondent’s time. Sotomayor spoke 17 times to Petitioner and 18 times to Respondent; but when she spoke to Respondent, she had much more to say—921 words versus 497 words. In spite of the opening salvo, by the end of the argument Sotomayor registered a significant disagreement gap in favor of Petitioner. Thus, even though she described herself as “upset” with Petitioner’s advocate, our analysis, represented in the figure below, predicts she is 90% likely to vote for Petitioner, and is the Justice most likely to do so.

Sotomayor normally reserves her toughest questions for the prosecution side in criminal cases—perhaps reflecting, as well as her liberal ideology, that as a former prosecutor herself she has particularly high standards for the profession. That fact made her sharp critique of the capital defendant seem more important than it really was. Our empirical approach to reviewing oral argument helps put episodes like this in a more balanced context and avoid salience bias (a recognized common behavioral irrationality that causes people to focus on prominent information and ignore potentially more significant but less noticeable contra-indicators).

A far clearer signal of a Justice breaking with expectations was Justice Kavanaugh. He spoke only to Respondent’s advocate and asked tough questions as to whether there was any limit on the potentially “gruesome and brutal pain” the state is permitted to impose in executing Bucklew, and demanded a yes or no answer from the state’s advocate.

In contrast, the numbers on Justice Gorsuch are likely misleading. He spoke only twice to Respondent’s advocate and once to Petitioner’s advocate, making his signals very weak. Equally importantly, both questions he put to Respondent’s advocate were open-ended questions asking him to get to a point he had said he would make—that is, a seemingly friendly inquiry. Given Gorsuch voted to deny the stay of execution, we expect he will join the other conservatives in voting with Respondent. (Although Justice Thomas was his normal reticent self, he too had joined the dissent from the stay of execution).

With Justice Ginsburg unusually silent (even before breaking her ribs), we can only go on her prior voting record, which is generally pro-defendant. All of this would lead to a prediction of a 5:4 vote for Petitioner, however the prediction depends on the untested vote of Justice Kavanaugh—a tough prediction, indeed.

Forecast of Madison v. Alabama

Oral argument in Madison v. Alabama, on the question of whether someone who cannot remember the crime he committed due to multiple strokes, also involved descriptions of peculiar facts. According to Petitioner’s advocate, inmate Madison regularly soils himself because he cannot remember that he has a toilet in his cell. The law on the issue was as messy as the facts. The following was a typical confused interaction:

Sonia Sotomayor: Mr. Stevenson, part of the problem is the use of the word “loss of memory.” And I — in your briefs, you seem to go back and forth on this. Are you conceding that amnesia about the incident alone, where you can function in every other way in society, would you be incompetent then?

Bryan A. Stevenson: No.

Sonia Sotomayor: To be executed?

Bryan A. Stevenson: Yes, that’s right.

On another point Justice Alito complained: “No, I don’t understand — I don’t understand your answer.”

And Chief Justice Roberts questioned whether there was an issue at all in the case, saying to Petitioner’s advocate: “There are two questions. You concede on one, and the state concedes on the other.” Petitioner had conceded that simply not remembering the crime is not enough to avoid execution, and the state had admitted that if the person is incompetent, they cannot be executed.

The figure below shows our predictions for the case.

ScotusOA prediction based on the oral argument in Madison v Alabama

Thomas was silent as always and Gorsuch was silent in this case also. Furthermore, both Breyer and Roberts presented ambiguous signals. Again, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch had opposed the imposition of the stay, suggesting again support for Respondent. This time, however, Roberts had not joined that order. His far more mixed signal in this argument supports Amy Howe’s prediction that as Chief Justice, he “might have a greater incentive than his colleagues to avoid deadlocking on Madison’s case” (Kavanaugh was not yet on the Court when the case was heard) and so could provide the fifth vote for a very narrow victory for Madison by remanding the case back to state court to consider the specific question of whether Madison is incompetent because of his dementia.

We think this analysis makes sense of Roberts’ tentative signal. But we would go further and say that Roberts will only vote in favor of Petitioner for a very narrow ruling, otherwise he will vote for Respondent. We believe Roberts’ ambiguous signal indicates his concern over the potential for this second very specific medical circumstance to create an enormous slippery slope to a flood of future death penalty challenges. Whereas Bucklew’s case is limited to an n of approximately one, making it hard to justify the Court using one of its approximate 75 spots to effectively act as a court of last instance, in contrast, Madison’s case could drastically change death penalty jurisprudence. With death penalty appeals dragging the ordinary execution process out over decades, the chances of other inmates developing memory-related medical issues are very high. A broader ruling for Petitioner could spawn a tide of challenges that would make Atkins IQ challenges seem a narrow set. As such, we expect Roberts to either support a very narrow ruling for Petitioner or rule in favor of Respondent. The empirics indicate he is right on the borderline.

Thus, we predict a 5:3 win for Petitioner on narrow grounds, or a 4:4 default win for Respondent.

 

Prediction for Bucklew: 5:4 vote for Petitioner (Bucklew)

For Petitioner: Sotomayor, Kagan, Breyer, Kavanaugh, Ginsburg

For Respondent: Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch

Most likely the switch: Kavanaugh

 

Prediction for Madison:

5:3 vote for Petitioner (Madison) and remand

or

4:4 vote for Respondent (Alabama)

For Petitioner: Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Kagan, Breyer, (Roberts)

For Respondent: Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, (Roberts)

Most likely to switch: Roberts

Interruptions among the justices as a predictor of voting disagreement

In a just published article in the Boston College Law Review, Kyle Rozema and I show that interruptions between two justices at oral argument are significantly associated with voting disagreement between pair in the eventual case outcome. We show that on average, a given judicial pair is 7% less likely to vote together in a case where an interruption occurs between them at oral argument. This adds to the mounting evidence that interruptions constitute good predictors of voting outcomes in cases.

Not all justices are alike, but the pattern is clear

Kyle and I show that interruptions at oral argument, as in the many other areas where interruptions have been studied, capture a form of conflict between the justices. Whether interruptions cause ill will or reflect existing conflict, either way they provide a glimpse into otherwise hidden forms of disagreement between members of the Court. Of course, scholars have long recognized regular dividing lines among the justices, most notably ideological divisions, but those factors apply across all cases—we are able to show that interruptions in a given argument reflect an increased probability of disagreement in the case at hand, even accounting for more general ideological division.

The correlation between interruption and disagreement is not the same for all justices. In general a justice is more likely to disagree with someone who has interrupted them or whom they interrupted, but there is variation. The figure below shows the extent to which each justice is more likely to vote contrary to someone with whom they were involved in interruption in a given case. Points to the left of the zero line in the center indicate a greater tendency to agree, points to the right of the zero line indicate a greater tendency to disagree. All but four justices serving on the Court between 1960 and 2015 lie to the right of the zero line, being more likely to disagree with someone with whom they interrupt or are interrupted by.

Differences in Disagreement for Cases with and without Interruptions (Jacobi & Rozema 2018)

Interruptions as conflict, and other theories

We show that a substantially and significantly significant relationship exists between justice to justice interruptions and ultimate disagreement between those justices in the case at hand: a greater probability of voting disagreement between justices of 7% based on one interruption is a very large effect. The question, then, is what is the mechanism of that disagreement?

We explore several explanations for why justices who interrupt each other in a case are less likely to vote together. Our hypothesis is a “conflict” theory: interruptions constitute a type of observable conflict that is systematically associated with disagreement. The conflict theory is consistent with psychology research, which defines interruptions as “deviations from the turn-taking rule that specifies that only one party should talk at the time.

But we also explore other theories. A second “exposure” theory would suggest that justices who speak more in a case might be more exposed to interrupting or being interrupted simply by virtue of taking up more airtime. A third “dissatisfaction” theory is that a justice is interrupting because he or she is at odds with the rest of the Court about the direction of the oral argument and the anticipated outcome of the case. For example, this may occur if the case is very salient to the individual justice but not necessarily salient to the rest of the Court. A fourth “difficult case” theory would suggest that interruptions are simply reflections of something about the case generally that is common to all justices, and cases with more disagreement are more prone to interruptions. In difficult cases, an interruption may not be specific to either of the justices involved in the interruption but is simply a response to the nature of the case itself

We find that the conflict explanation accounts for over half of the effect: the probability of two justices agreeing when one has interrupted the other in a case is reduced by over 4%, even after we have accounted for the other explanations. Exposure is the next most significant factor: a 10% increase in the time a pair of justices spend speaking decreases the likelihood of their agreement by 5.3%. We find no evidence for the dissatisfaction theory. We also find evidence for the difficult case theory: agreement between the justice-pairs is 1.3% lower when there is this kind of interruption. The effect of exposure and difficult cases, however, is less than the effect of conflict.

 

 

Zombies in the graveyard! Knick v. Township of Scott rises from the dead

Reargument ordered in Knick v. Township of Scott

I wrote a post last Wednesday (on Halloween) all about the  spooky metaphysics of deciding when a graveyard taking comes into existence and predicting a 4:4 split in Knick v. Township of Scott. The post was scheduled to go live at our usual time, Monday morning at 9am. However, on Friday the Court restored Knick to the calendar for reargument and directed the parties to file additional briefing. This order basically confirms our prediction that the case was a 4:4 split, although it is possible that some of the justices were genuinely undecided and thought additional argument and briefing could clarify matters.

The reargument order calls for briefing on the Petitioner’s argument in footnote 14 of their brief that there is a key distinction between actions of the responsible government entity at the time of the taking and a compensation order (or denial thereof) by a state court under an inverse condemnation action. Petitioner argues that her takings claim is ripe as soon as the Township required she dedicate a public easement without offering compensation.

I strikes me that the call for 10 additional pages of briefing is just papering over the current 4:4 split that presumably Justice Kavanaugh will resolve when the case is reargued.

The original post follows:

Just in time for Halloween

In Knick v. Township of Scott, the Supreme Court waded into the somewhat metaphysical question of when exactly a takings claim against a state comes into being and the important practical question of where such cases can and should be litigated. This case was argued on October 3rd, but we thought it was perfect for a Halloween themed post.

The Williamson County Catch-22

As the Knick case itself illustrates, plaintiffs who would prefer to take their takings cases to federal court can easily fall into in a Catch-22 situation. Petitioner Rose Mary Knick argues that a local cemetery ordinance compelling her to allow the public daytime access to a grave site on her property amounts to a Fifth Amendment taking unless compensation is forthcoming. The Catch-22 arises because under the 1985 precedent of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, Knick cannot pursue her federal Section 1983 claim until she has gone through the Pennsylvania procedure for seeking just compensation and been denied. However, because courts since Williamson County have applied issue preclusion to prevent unsuccessful state plaintiffs re-litigating the same question in federal court, once she loses in a Pennsylvania state court, she will no longer have access to federal court.

Ghost in the machine?

Our predictive models suggest that Chief Justice Roberts (75%), Justice Gorsuch (94%) and Justice Alito (67%) are solidly in the petitioner’s camp.

Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, Predictions based on SCOTUS Oral Argument

It seemed clear at oral argument that the Chief could see the merits of both sides and was concerned about  “the letters that we’re going to get from district court judges around the country who are not going to be very happy learning that they now have to adjudicate state inverse condemnation actions, which can be fairly elaborate.”

The model is understated in the case of Alito. True, Alito engaged with both sides of the argument, but his exchanges with Petitioner were almost entirely in the form of “That’s a good argument, but wouldn’t it be even better if you said it like this?” For example, about 10 minutes into the argument, Alito cut off Justice Kagan to say the following:

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Let me see if I understand your claim, because a little — some of the questions and the discussion up to this point is a bit confusing to me. I thought your claim was that there is a violation of the takings clause and you can, therefore, bring a suit under 1983 when the state does something that constitutes a taking but at the same time says we’re not paying you anything for this. Now it’s not a question of when they would have to pay once they’ve admitted that there’s a taking, but when they do something that constitutes a taking, and they say, no, this isn’t a taking at all, and, therefore, you’re getting zero, which I understand to be your claim here, then you can go directly to federal court and bring an action under 1983. And to require you to go to state court before you do that is essentially to require you to exhaust state remedies before you can bring a 1983 claim, which is never required under 1983.

I thought that that was your argument.

J. David Breemer for the Petitioner could only agree.

Our predictive model counts only two clear votes for the Respondent, Justice Sotomayor (85%) and Justice Kagan (64%). However, even though our model suggests Justices Ginsburg and Breyer are leaning slightly in favor of the Petitioner, a vote for the Respondent seems just as likely. Based on his comments at oral argument, Breyer seems likely to vote for the Respondent and will leave Williamson County intact, but he will soften the effect of issue preclusion that creates the Catch-22.

The other federalism

Conservative justices sometimes care deeply about federalism and state sovereignty, but not so much when it comes to the authority of state courts to decide issues of state law. One of the striking things about the oral argument in Knick v. Township of Scott was that only Justice Sotomayor addressed the Petitioner’s most likely motivation for trying to keep her case in federal court.

Knick denies that there is a grave site located on her property; but she argues that even if there is, she loses an important property right if the state can compel her to grant public access during daylight hours. Assuming that the grave site exists (why take the case to the Supreme Court if it doesn’t?), one of the key questions on the merits of this takings claim will be to what extent Pennsylvania property law had always allowed for limited public access in a case like this. Sotomayor raised the question of whether the restriction was inherent in the property prior to the ordinance, describing it as the “whole issue.” She may have also been thinking that the real point of framing a case like this as a Section 1983 action is not to just to vindicate a federal constitutional right, it is to make the federal courts the final arbiters of Pennsylvania state property law.

The looming specter of a rehearing

By unwritten tradition, justices do not vote in cases for which they were not present at oral argument, and so Justice Kavanaugh should not break the 4:4 tie we predict. However, there is precedent for cases to be re-argued, particularly when otherwise the case is likely to split 4:4. But other cases in the past have simply been handed down with an even split by the original makeup of the Court. If Knick is reargued, and Kavanaugh has the deciding vote, judging by the apparent ideological split of the case in the first hearing, and the similarity between Kavanaugh’s and the other conservatives’ behavior at oral argument in the few cases he has heard so far, that could turn the outcome into a 5:4 decision for Petitioner Knick.

Knick v. Township of Scott prediction: 4:4

For Petitioner Knick: Gorsuch, Roberts, Alito, Thomas

For Respondent Township of Scott: Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer

Most likely to switch: Breyer and Roberts