Covering the Court: The Impact of a Modern Era of Journalism (dissertation project)

The production of political news has changed dramatically over the past forty years, with the number and type of sources exploding precisely as media markets became increasingly segmented by a variety of political tastes. I document changes in media coverage of the Supreme Court of the United States in print, television and eventually Internet sources from 1980 to 2016. Using automated unsupervised document classification techniques and a corpus of more than 100,000 distinct articles and transcripts, I find that news sources have shifted away from covering the Court’s typical work, the resolution of cases. Instead, sources have devoted more attention to stories placing the Supreme Court in the context of ongoing political debates and controversies. This shift is particularly evident in cable news and on blogs, precisely the news sources that are most likely to provide political coverage from a partisan/ideological perspective. In so far as scholars of the Supreme Court believe that its power ultimately derives from an image of the justices as engaging in a process of deliberation and decision-making fundamentally distinct from typical political debate, the shift in coverage raises important questions about the robustness of this image over time and ultimately the long-run status of the Court’s legitimacy.

Another important development in news discourse during the time period under study is the politicization of language used to describe the U.S. Supreme Court. Using supervised machine learning techniques, I develop a measure of politicization of Supreme Court news reports, finding notable differences in how media sources characterize the justices, specific cases, and the institution as a whole. 

Gender Diversity on High Courts (with Nancy Arrington, Brian Delgado, Adam Glynn, and Jeffrey Staton)

Increasing the diversity of justice institutions is believed to be important both per se and because increased diversity may serve a variety of normatively appealing goals. Scholars have suggested that well-designed appointment processes can promote diversity without substantive goals, much less quotas. If correct, these proposals raise the possibility of promoting greater diversity without having to resolve politically charged debates about quotas. Yet, scholars disagree about the effects of particular design choices. Worse, estimating causal effects of institutions in observational data is particularly difficult. We develop a research design linked to the empirical implications of existing theoretical arguments to evaluate the effect of institutional change on the gender diversity of peak courts cross-nationally. Specifically, we consider the effect of an increase (or a decrease) in the number of actors involved in the appointment process. We find mixed results for any existing claim about the role of appointment institutions play in increasing diversity. Yet we also find that any institutional change seems to cause an increase in the gender diversity of peak courts.

A working draft is available here.

Signaling in the Spotlight: Judicial Manipulation of Accountability (with Benjamin Engst)

Constitutional courts around the world vary in the transparency they provide surrounding their rulings. While some courts by law never publish individual judges’ votes on court decisions, other courts always publish these votes by norm. However, if a court can choose how much information to reveal about its internal agreement, what will it choose to do? Conventional wisdom in judicial politics holds that unanimous rulings strengthen courts’ institutional legitimacy. Therefore, if judges act in the best interest of the institution, they will keep their votes secret. However, we argue that judges’ incentives to think institutionally decrease when external actors are paying attention to court rulings. When the media covers a case prior to the court’s decision in the case, we posit that individual judges’ incentives to seek personal accountability for their positions will be elevated because there is a greater chance that outside observers will become aware of these individual positions. We test our argument on the German Federal Constitutional Court, a court which possesses discretion over its vote publication procedures. We find that prior coverage of a court decision increases the probability that the Court will release information about individual votes. Furthermore, as the amount of prior media coverage increases, the probability that the Court will release information about internal disagreement increases at a higher rate compared to the rate at which they will release information about agreement. Overall, our findings illustrate the unique challenges of coordinating behavior on collegial courts and speak to the broader literature concerning the evolution of norms of dissensus on other courts around the world.

Considering Coverage When Deciding to Decide: Newsworthiness and U.S. Supreme Court Grants of Certiorari

As sources of news proliferate and diversify, the U.S. Supreme Court is under increased levels of scrutiny by the press. Since it does not engage in the same type of press relations efforts that other branches of government undertake, the Court has few tools at its disposable to combat the negative public perceptions that this increased scrutiny encourages. Although one would think that avoiding high-profile and contentious disputes, which are likely to attract a great deal of attention and critical examination from the press, would be an effective strategy on the part of the Court to provide few opportunities for condemnation, I argue that the Court instead grants certiorari in “newsworthy” cases at a higher rate to combat negative perceptions. Whereas denying certiorari in important cases provides grounds for criticism that the Court is not performing its function in society, which is to decide such disputes, granting certiorari gives the Court the opportunity to control the narrative with respect to the case. Since the Court possesses few powers to manipulate the press, it must use its agenda-setting authority to do so. In order to test this prediction, I construct an original measure of “newsworthiness” based on research from the field of journalism and apply it to Supreme Court petitions of certiorari. Through an examination of the same materials that the justices use to decide whether to grant review in a case, and the same materials that reporters read to determine whether to cover a case, namely certiorari petitions, I quantify the likelihood that the case will receive media attention. Controlling for legal factors contributing to the granting of review, I find that newsworthiness influences certiorari decisions.