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Why Those Opinions Don't Add Up

By Jocelyn SelimOctober 1, 2003 5:00 AM


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Ever wonder how biased Supreme Court justices are? The answer, says Mount Sinai School of Medicine mathematician Lawrence Sirovich, is less than you might believe. "If you just read the paper you'd think that the Court was nearly one-dimensional," says Sirovich. In lay terms, this means that you would expect justices always to toe the party line, with Republicans and Democrats falling into two distinct factions. The opposite would be a court of unique opinions, a nine-dimensional group in which each of the nine justices voted independently of one another. To determine how the real Supreme Court works, Sirovich used information theory to analyze all the nearly 500 decisions made by the current lineup of justices since 1994.

He found that the Court behaves as if it were formed of 4.68 completely independent justices—much better than a simple left-right polarized group. And he does not worry that the result shows that the justices are not completely free spirits. "The analysis looks only at the net result without accounting for the possible variables of independent reasoning that may lie behind a decision," he says. "Nine monkeys flipping coins would be completely independent, but you wouldn't want to leave society's most difficult decisions up to them, would you?"

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