What Data Science Tells Us about Merrick Garland

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After weeks of speculation, President Obama has nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. Now, the real examination begins of Garland’s biography, credentials, and track record. The broad strokes are familiar: Harvard Law School, clerk for Judge Henry Friendly and Justice William Brennan, federal prosecutor and former partner at an elite law firm, chief judge for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Mainstream coverage of his judicial track record notes Garland’s centrism and lack of controversy. Yet, given his years of judicial experience, we wanted to see what we could learn about Garland from a statistical perspective. Would data science reveal an ideology that might surprise?

A centrist in citation

Since joining the D.C. Circuit, Garland has authored over 300 opinions. To see if we could expose conservative or liberal tendencies in these decisions, we took a deep dive with our Judge Analytics platform to identify other judges Garland finds influential (looking at who he likes to cite to).

Judges’ citation patterns can provide a powerful window into their decision-making — whether it identifies another judge they find persuasive, someone who mentored them, or someone who shares their judicial philosophy. Over time, patterns in citations reveal themselves.


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In Garland’s career, he most frequently cited his peers on the D.C. Circuit, which is not unusual, as well as a mix of judges nominated by both Republican and Democratic presidents. His citations of Supreme Court justices also point to a centrist judicial philosophy not ruled by sweeping pronouncements. For every conservative judge he cites often (Rehnquist), he counters with a liberal one (Stevens).

His most influential opinions

The number of citations a ruling receives can be a strong indicator for how influential an opinion is — another judge may cite to it as a point of disagreement or in support of a specific argument, but at the very least, it shows that the opinion is important enough to be considered.

Garland has ruled in many significant cases including areas of criminal law, gun control, the environment, and national security. (For the latter, he has written five majority opinions related to detainees at Guantanamo Bay.)

Yet the ruling that other judges cited most often involved an infomercial star, in Trudeau v. Federal Trade Com’n. Kevin Trudeau challenged a FTC press release that reported the settlement of a case the agency brought against him for false and misleading advertising. Trudeau alleged that the press release is itself false and misleading, and that, in issuing it, the FTC exceeded its statutory authority and violated his First Amendment rights. This case raised a host of complicated questions regarding the jurisdiction and authority of federal courts.

Given his long tenure as a federal appellate judge, Garland’s rulings covered a wide range of topics including race, gender, religion, First and Fourth Amendments, FOIA, labor, role of the courts, and more.

He was the most influential judge on Obama’s shortlist

When we looked back on Justice Antonin Scalia’s career, we discovered that he ranked as the most influential amongst current justices, using a scoring system that measures both quantity and quality (Hirsch’s index, “h-index”). We use the same approach here to rank Garland against his peers.

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Using the h-index, our scoring system offers an objective, unbiased way to determine how influential a judge is. It weighs the number of rulings he or she wrote and the number of times those decisions were cited in other opinions.

Garland’s 19 years on the D.C. Circuit provide an advantage in this scoring system, compared to the other rumored nominees who were appointed more recently, but even accounting for that his score is much higher. More broadly, when compared to all judges appointed in 1997 or later (when Garland was appointed), Garland ranks in the top 10 percent. The other nominees on this shortlist are also impressive, but don’t rank quite so high against their peers. Of nearly 200 judges who began service in 2012 and after, Garland, Srinivasan, Kelly, Millett and Watford are all in the top 20 percent.

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