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Supreme Court decisions predicted by online computer program

Nov. 5, 2003 — As the U.S. Supreme Court moves into its new term, litigants, attorneys and the public will be closely watching its docket and speculating about its decisions. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court Forecasting Project at Washington University in St. Louis, court watchers everywhere will be able to log on to the Internet and obtain a forecast of how individual cases are likely to be decided.

The project accurately predicted decisions in 75 percent of the cases heard by the Court in its last term.

“People can go to our web site and input some information about a Supreme Court case, such as where the case comes from, who the litigants are, the issue at hand, and so forth, and the model will produce a forecasted decision based on a statistical model,” said Andrew Martin, project collaborator and an assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Launched last year by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University, the Supreme Court Forecasting Project began as a friendly interdisciplinary competition that pitted political science methodologies against the individualized expertise of a panel of legal experts. For every case argued in the Court’s last term, the project compared two different methods of predicting the outcome − one relying on a computer model; the other on opinions of legal experts. Overall, the statistical model accurately predicted 75 percent of the court’s decisions, while the experts as a group were correct on only 59.1 percent of the cases.

“The fact that this statistical model did better than the experts as a group − and the group included law professors and deans of law schools and people that practice before the Supreme Court − shows that the social scientific methodology can be very successful at predicting what’s going to happen in the future,” Martin said.

The project Web site, located at wusct.wustl.edu, includes background on the project and the predictions and actual outcomes for all of the cases heard in the court’s 2002 Term. Forecasts for most of the important cases scheduled for hearing in the current term will be added to the site as details become available.

Other project researchers include Pauline T. Kim, professor of law at Washington University; Theodore Ruger, associate professor of law at Washington University; and Kevin M. Quinn, an assistant professor of government at Harvard University. Their results, and a discussion of the implications of the project for understanding the Court, will be published in the Columbia Law Review in May 2004.

For decades, political scientists and legal scholars have held heated debates about how and why the Supreme Court reaches a particular decision in the important and often controversial cases it hears each session.

“The Supreme Court is an extremely important institution in American politics,” said Ruger. “Its decisions impact a diverse array of vital economic, social and structural questions. A method that succeeds in recognizing patterns in its decision-making is of considerable interest to many parties.”

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