Artificial intelligence prevails at predicting Supreme Court decisions

May 3, 2017

By Matthew Hutson

“See you in the Supreme Court!” President Donald Trump tweeted last week, responding to lower court holds on his national security policies. But is taking cases all the way to the highest court in the land a good idea? Artificial intelligence may soon have the answer. A new study shows that computers can do a better job than legal scholars at predicting Supreme Court decisions, even with less information.

Several other studies have guessed at justices’ behavior with algorithms. A 2011 project, for example, used the votes of any eight justices from 1953 to 2004 to predict the vote of the ninth in those same cases, with 83% accuracy. A 2004 paper tried seeing into the future, by using decisions from the nine justices who’d been on the court since 1994 to predict the outcomes of cases in the 2002 term. That method had an accuracy of 75%.

The new study draws on a much richer set of data to predict the behavior of any set of justices at any time. Researchers used the Supreme Court Database, which contains information on cases dating back to 1791, to build a general algorithm for predicting any justice’s vote at any time. They drew on 16 features of each vote, including the justice, the term, the issue, and the court of origin. Researchers also added other factors, such as whether oral arguments were heard.

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