Rice and Michigan State build database on State Supreme Courts

April 28, 2005

For political scientists and other scholars hungering for information on state supreme court decisions, Rice University's and Michigan State University's State Supreme Court Data Project is a free all-you-can-eat buffet.

The project boasts an online analysis of every state supreme court case heard from 1995 through 1998 in all 50 states. Each of the more than 30,000 cases in the database has been coded to facilitate an extensive variety of searches, such as biographical information about a judge, the judge's vote in a case, the outcome of a case, legal issues raised and characteristics of litigants.

"The states have an awesome responsibility for resolving the vast majority of the nation's legal disputes," said Paul Brace, the Clarence L. Carter Professor of Political Science at Rice and principal investigator for the project. "Unfortunately, our knowledge of state courts, including courts of last resort, is quite limited."

With nearly $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, Brace and co-principal investigator Melinda Gann Hall at Michigan State spent the past six years collecting and coding data on state supreme courts to meet the need for such pivotal details.

State courts decide more than 99 percent of the litigation in the U.S., interpreting not only state laws but also federal laws. "With increasing state discretion over matters of public policy, the power of state courts should be increasing, making studies of these institutions particularly timely," Brace said. "Without understanding the nature of these institutions and the states, we are left with a very incomplete understanding of American politics."

Brace noted that unlike the unique U.S. Supreme Court, whose justices are appointed for life and don't have to worry about decisions being reversed, most state supreme court judges are elected and linked directly with voters and public opinion.

"Whether or not judges are elected has an impact on the kinds of decisions they make," Brace said. Using the State Supreme Court Data Project, scholars can study the effects of judicial elections on judicial behavior by comparing the dockets of appointed versus elected supreme courts, how the composition of a court reflects a state's liberal or conservative tendencies and how public opinion affects judicial decisions.

Brace and Hall trained and employed undergraduate and graduate students at Rice and Michigan State to do the coding for the project, which entails more than 200 details for each case. One of the biggest challenges during the project's early phase was how to develop a template that systematized the collection of data to reduce mistakes. "Inter-coder reliability was incredibly high," Brace said, noting that the software included hint buttons to guide coders through the cases and help them look at the information they needed to enter in the database. The data entered by coders on the software template went straight into a spreadsheet, which avoided errors that might have resulted from copying data manually from paper.

Biographical information on more than 400 state supreme court judges is contained in the database, and although the database ends with court cases from 1998, Brace is hopeful that private funding will support extension of the project on an ongoing basis. "This would allow longitudinal studies of how state supreme courts change over time," he said.

"We want this to be a permanent data archive that can serve as infrastructure for addressing fundamental questions about law and politics," Brace said. "These data will be of interest not only to academicians, but also to government officials, practicing attorneys and concerned citizens interested in the activities of the states' highest courts."
To view the State Supreme Court Data Project, go to http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~pbrace/statecourt/index.html.

Rice University

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