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Doctoral Dissertation Research: Measuring Legal Quality on the U.S. Supreme Court

National Science Foundation Award Abstract: “The U.S. Supreme Court decides cases by way of an adversarial system of justice. In particular, lawyers from opposing sides of each case write legal briefs that attempt to persuade the justices that their view of the law is the most correct. To make their case, lawyers base their legal arguments in existing court decisions, known as precedent. Because some precedent is more relevant and influential than others, there will be differences in the overall strength of the lawyer’s arguments. Consequently, this project will generate an empirical measure of legal quality that identifies the strength (or weakness) of each side’s legal arguments in a case. To generate this measure of legal quality, this project will draw extensively from the archival materials of retired Supreme Court justices. To do so, the project will examine bench memoranda, which are documents prepared by each justice’s law clerks. The project will digitally photograph, content analyze, and make publicly available over 6,000 bench memoranda spanning nearly a dozen retired justices, from 1946-1994. These bench memoranda offer an evaluation of each side’s legal arguments, based on the information provided in the legal briefs submitted by the parties, as well as that provided in the amicus curiae briefs, in each case. This project will use the information from the bench memoranda to evaluate and then create a measure of legal quality based on multiple aspects of legal doctrine. This resulting empirical measure, when combined with existing available data, will enable assessment of the impact of law on the Supreme Court’s decision making process.”

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