What Data Science Can Tell Us about Neil Gorsuch

/ / Judges in Action

Last night, ending months of speculation, President Trump announced the nomination of federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court seat. Now the real scrutiny begins, particularly around Gorsuch’s political views and legal philosophy. He clerked for Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy, and his conservative record has earned him comparisons to Scalia. Mainstream press coverage has also focused on Gorsuch’s rulings in two prominent cases, in which he sided with religious employers who objected to providing some forms of contraception coverage to their female workers.

Yet, given his years of judicial experience, we wanted to see what else the data could tell us about Gorsuch from an analytics perspective. Applying data science to Gorsuch’s cases, could we see, for example, that he cites the centrist Kennedy more frequently than fellow originalist Scalia? Can data uncover insights that escaped the common understanding?

Gorsuch’s Scalia Score Reveals a Jurist with Similar Leanings
To start, we took a deep dive into Ravel’s Judge Analytics platform to determine how similar Gorsuch might be to Scalia, since he is in consideration for filling his seat. We developed a “Scalia Score,” in which we looked at each judge on Trump’s shortlist of nominees, their total number of citations, and then calculated how many times these judges cited to opinions authored by Scalia. For this tally, we counted only the unique instance of from/to opinion pairings, regardless of how many times a ruling referenced the cited opinion.

More than any judge on Trump’s list, Gorsuch tops our ranking with the highest Scalia Score, which serves as another indicator of his ideology and conservative bonafides. Yet, surprisingly, he comes in second to Merrick Garland, who was President Obama’s nominee.

Yet, Could Gorsuch Cast a Potential Swing Vote?
Who a judge cites to can say a lot about how they make decisions — whether it is to another judge they find persuasive, someone who mentored them, or someone they share philosophy with. Over time, patterns in those citations reveal themselves. We decided to take a step back and take a look at the larger picture to see what Gorsuch’s affinity is for others on the Supreme Court.

In his years as a jurist, Gorsuch has authored 724 opinions, and of the SCOTUS justices, he most often turns to William Rehnquist in his rulings, with Scalia coming in second. Yet, he often cites more centrist judges such as Kennedy or Sandra Day O’Connor or Kennedy. This might spark hope in liberal circles that he could be like Kennedy, for whom he clerked, in serving as a potential swing vote in key cases.

He Wasn’t the Most Influential Judge on Trump’s Shortlist
We ranked Trump’s list of potential SCOTUS nominees by influence, which we determined by using a metric called the Ravel Influence Score. Using data from Ravel’s platform, we weighed the number of rulings a judge wrote and the number of times those decisions were cited in other opinions. This measure is based on Hirsch’s index (“h-index) and was originally used to compute the impact of researchers in the scientific community, with the goal being to quantify the impact and relevance of an individual’s scientific output.

When we looked back on Scalia’s career, we discovered that he ranked as the most influential amongst current justices. Among his peers, though, Gorsuch was only #4 on the list.