Those Liberal Old Justices


Fivethirtyeight is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs on the web.  Some great content today with an analysis of SCOTUS and the Justices leanings over time, which shows that all Justices, even the Conservatives, lean liberal as they age:

There’s an old saw, often mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill, that goes something like this: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re 35, you have no brain.” A person should start left and drift right, and not the other way around, the adage suggests.1

But when it comes to Supreme Court justices, growing older appears to incite a trend in the opposite ideological direction. One prominent measure of judicial ideology — the Martin-Quinn score — illustrates this tendency. These scores, as DW-Nominate does for legislators, use the justices’ votes to quantify their position on a left-right spectrum. A more negative score means a justice is further left; a more positive score means she’s further right. The scores are based on data from the Supreme Court Database and are calculated back to 1937.

The proposed explanations are each valid, but one possibility is conspicuously absent.  What if conservative ideals have a tendency to drift further right over time while the Justices remain fairly consistent?  To do that kind of analysis you’d have to nail down a concrete definitions of “liberal” or “conservative” viewpoints, which seems impossible particularly when comparing stances from different time periods.  Perhaps that’s the real flaw with this kind of analysis.  Even still, it’s good cocktail party conversation (at least it should be, but instead you’ll probably end up discussing this).

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