With the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the firestorm that has erupted over the nomination of his replacement, we’re reminded that few things in politics are as impactful as the balance of the Supreme Court. Data on the ideological leanings of the Justices from 1937 to 2014 by Andrew Martin of the University of Michigan and Kevin Quinn of U.C. Berkeley provide us some interesting insights as to the balance of the Court in recent history and Justice Scalia’s contribution to it.
We previously published Scotus Scores, the creation from our very own Alex Lundry, visualizing the court ideology through 2007. This update, sparked by our reader Jon Coyle, shows the Martin-Quinn ideology scores through 2014.
To download the updated data and look at the court’s ideology by term, seat, or overall click here to download and explore the data and then let us know how you interpret the court’s political ideology.
Justice Scalia was known to most political observers as a staunch conservative, a label supported by the Martin-Quinn ideology scores. In each year during his tenure, Scalia provided a conservative contribution to the Court, in both absolute and relative terms. However, despite always being more conservative than the median Justice on the Court, the degree of Scalia’s conservatism varied quite a bit over time.
This variation in Scalia’s conservatism is demonstrated by our color coding, which tracks Martin-Quinn scores. Scores are set up to represent greater conservatism with higher numbers (which we give darker red shading), and use a baseline score of 0 to reflect a middle-ground ideology (which we color white). Liberal scores, on the other hand are represented by negative numbers, and blue shading.
As the data show, Scalia became more conservative in the middle of his tenure, but he was never the most conservative member of the Court. In his early years on the Court, Scalia’s conservative record was somewhat overshadowed by that of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It was not until the 90s and early 2000s that Scalia emerged the more strongly conservative vote. During that period, the Court heard such major cases as Planned Parenthood v. Casey (for which Scalia wrote a famously scathing dissent) and Bush v. Gore. In more recent years, Scalia seemed to have moderated to a degree, but he remained an important member of the conservative bloc on the Court.
The Martin-Quinn data show that the Scalia’s seat on the Court has been the most conservative in modern history. His predecessor, William Rehnquist (who later became Chief Justice), was an especially conservative voice on the Court. And prior to Rehnquist, John Marshall Harlan II (nominated by Dwight Eisenhower) provided a consistent conservative voice as well. Thus, the replacement of Scalia on the Supreme Court threatens to change more than just the current balance of the Court, but also the legacy of that particular seat.
Justice Scalia’s history on the Court demonstrates his important role in providing a consistently conservative voice for three decades. The question as to who replaces him lies ahead and will no doubt be determined through a contentious political battle.
By Hovannes Abramyan, Data Scientist