Hastings Law Journal


Carolyn Shapiro


In recent years, the legal academy has experienced a surge of interest in quantitative empirical analysis. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm has not always been accompanied by careful analysis of what the tools and resources of quantitative analysis can tell us about law and legal doctrine. As this Article demonstrates, the findings of some studies therefore unwittingly reflect the limitations of those tools and resources rather than providing insight into the workings of courts.

Specifically, this Article provides a long-overdue critical analysis of the most influential source of data about the Supreme Court, the Original Supreme Court Database, created by political scientist Harold J. Spaeth. The Database, which codes every opinion issued by the Supreme Court since 1953, contains coding for legal provisions considered by the Court and for what Spaeth calls issue and issue area. These codes, however, do not report reliable information about the roles that law and legal doctrine play in the Supreme Court's cases. The Database's limitations have important, but poorly understood, implications for the many scholars who rely on the Database. The Article describes a number of specific studies whose results are unreliable because of the way they use the Database.

The Article also presents the results of a Recoding Project of a random sample of recent Supreme Court cases. The findings of the Recoding Project indicate that significant information about law and doctrine is omitted from the Database. The Article concludes by discussing implications for future research and explores ways to develop more comprehensive and law-focused coding protocols.

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