Welcome to Topic Modeling the Supreme Court, my research project for Lafayette College’s Digital Humanities Summer Scholars program. By collecting Supreme Court majority opinions by Justices Sotomayor, Kennedy, and Scalia from cases since 2009, I performed a topic modeling analysis. Here’s a bit about why it’s important to look at these opinions:
Many who do not study the Supreme Court believe that justices are only supposed to interpret and translate the law, in the same way that classics scholar might translate the Iliad into English. This is, of course, not the case. Justices have political beliefs, personalities and biases.
For example, when Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and established the need for integrated public schools, it was not the Constitution that changed, but the justices’ personal beliefs. Of course, justices’ beliefs can have a significant impact on the way they interpret law and, thus, a significant impact on our democracy. That’s why it’s important to try to understand what these justices’ ideologies are and how it affects the ways in which they interpret Constitutional law.
Looking at Sotomayor’s, Kennedy’s and Scalia’s opinions, I tried to see if there was a difference in the themes they touched on in their opinions. My results came back null–but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done with topic modelling analysis and the web scraper I developed. There are still a lot of opportunities to look at the language in cases over time, or analyze dissenting and concurring opinions.