3236052269_58328bc076_zLast week, we addressed the reversal rate of the Appellate Court districts in civil cases at the Illinois Supreme Court.

Today, we begin taking a closer look at the data.  Even viewed from the District-by-District level, Appellate Court reversal rates are a composite statistic, and therefore may be hiding important insights. Suppose, for example, that the Supreme Court regularly affirmed cases reflecting a conservative approach to civil procedure issues, but often reversed opinions where a plaintiff suing the government had prevailed at the Appellate Court.

In order to learn more about the Supreme Court’s views on the law during our study period, we next study the top seven subject matter areas. These seven areas make up slightly less than thirty percent of the Court’s civil docket between 2000 and mid-2014.

We also address philosophical coding of our decisions for the first time. Philosophical coding of appellate decisions has a lengthy history in the academic literature; scholars have been attempting to rank both courts and individual Justices and judges along a conservative-to-liberal spectrum for more than sixty years.[1] Many different scoring systems have been developed and applied to enormous bodies of data.[2]

In order to minimize the subjectivity we add to the data, we apply a default rule in most cases: a vote for a plaintiff is coded as liberal, and a vote for the defendant is coded as conservative. There are two significant exceptions. For the most part in government and administrative cases, the government’s side as coded as liberal regardless of which side of the case style the government appears on, and the entity challenging the government’s position is coded as conservative.[3] Also, a vote for a party which would ordinarily appear as a defendant is still coded as conservative even when that party has taken the initiative in a particular case – for example, an insurance company which initiates litigation with its policyholder by filing a declaratory judgment action.

For the first five years of our study period, tort law was the most frequent subject of the Court’s civil docket, followed by civil procedure, constitutional law, insurance law, domestic relations, workers compensation and government and administrative law:


Tomorrow, we’ll address additional questions about the Court’s docket between 2000 and 2004: in the most frequently heard areas, did the Court accept more conservative or liberal Appellate Court decisions, and how did the Court’s reversal rates for each type of decision differ?

Image courtesy of Flickr by Nick Jordan (no changes).


[1]               Although most of the academic literature uses the term “ideological” coding, I have deliberately chosen a different term here. While studies of the “ideology” of judicial decisionmaking have drawn significant criticism, mostly because of the arguable implication that appellate judges are sometimes political actors, the notion that any judge – indeed, any lawyer – approaches legal questions with a generally conservative, moderate or liberal legal philosophy should not be open to much question.

[2]               E.g., Corey Rayburn Yung, “Judge by the Company You Keep: An Empirical Study of the Ideologies of Judges on the United States Courts of Appeals,” 51 Boston College Law Review 1133, 1140-1153 (2010); Andrew D. Martin and Kevin M. Quinn, “Dynamic Ideal Point Estimation via Markov Chain Monte Carlo for the U.S. Supreme Court,” 1953-1999,” 10 Political Analysis 134 (2002); Jeffrey A. Segal, Lee Epstein, Charles M. Cameron, Harold J. Spaeth, “Ideological Values and the Votes of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Revisited”. The Journal of Politics 57 (August 1995): 812–823. For an example of philosophical coding applied to large numbers of cases, see SupremeCourtDatabase.org. For a discussion of the debate over ideological coding of judicial decisions, see Gregory C. Sisk and Michael Heise, “Judges and Ideology: Public and Academic Debates about Statistical Measures,” 99 Northwestern University Law Review 743-804 (2005).

[3]               There is one exception to the exception: votes for plaintiffs alleging that the government is being insufficiently rigorous in its enforcement of environmental laws are coded as liberal.