A Prefatory Note from Harold J. Spaeth, Distinguished University Professor, emeritus, Michigan State University;
Research Professor in the College of Law and in the Institute for Public Policy & Social Research.
The database to which this introduction pertains spans all four centuries of the Court's decisions, from its first decision in 1791 to the Court's most recent decision. As such, it contains sixty variables for each case which, in turn, are composed of 2,633 elements, or components. The data in any given case, therefore, is drawn from a universe of 157,980 data points. The likelihood of resulting error -- actual or debatable -- remains ever present, and so I invite users of the database to inform me not only of errors, but also of any comments or suggestions (good, bad, or indifferent) they care to make at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The initial version of this database, which began with the Warren Court in 1953 and was back dated to the beginning of the Vinson Court in 1946, dates from the mid-1980's at the dawn of the desktop computing revolution and relies on pre-microcomputing and pre-internet conditions. As such, users needed knowledge of statistical software packages and the codified variables that the database contains. This new version, however, recognizes the existence of the 21st century by eliminating acquaintance with statistical software packages and coded variables. Plain English rules! But do note that the database can be uploaded into statistical packages to perform advanced calculations if a user so desires.
Aside from the foregoing, the major feature of this version of the database is an interface that is in line with modern technology and which will allow users to directly calculate and view relationships among the variables in the database. At present, this feature is available for the post-1946 terms; we are working on incorporating the legacy data.
I have specified decision rules governing the entry of data into the various variables, most particularly the legal provisions governing the Court's decisions and the issues to which cases pertain. These, however, are not set in concrete. You, of course, are free to redefine any and all variables on your copy of the database. If convention applies, I adhere to it. But for many variables and their specific entries, none exists.
Because the database now extends over four centuries, it is necessary to add, alter, and adjust a number of variables. I do so to keep the legacy cases (those decided between 1791 and the Court's acquisition of discretionary jurisdiction as a result of the Judges' Bill of 1925) as congruent as possible with the Court's modern decisions. These changes primarily apply to the issues the Court decides. Most notable is the addition of a set of common law issues. These account for much of the Court's heritage decisions, especially those of the 19th century, and have had little applicability to any but the parties to these cases.
In specifying the issue in the legacy cases I have chosen the one that best accords with what today's Court would consider the issue to be. For example, "prize cases," those in which vessels were captured on the high seas and brought into U.S. ports, are categorized either as Fifth Amendment takings clause cases or as cases pertaining to the jurisdiction of the federal district or appeals courts, depending on which issue the Court based its decision.This was done to provide a basis for continuity in the Court's decision making and to avoid undue segmentation of the Court's decisions. The same rule applies to various provisions pertaining to the Bill of Rights even though the Fourteenth Amendment had not been ratified and no guarantees of the Bill of Rights had been made binding on the state and local governments.
Do recognize, however, that the foregoing paragraph applies only to the issue(s) the Court addressed and not to the legal provisions decided by the Court. The latter were largely nonexistent before the end of the Civil War. These early legacy decisions generally rested either on the common law or judicial fiat.
Because of current concerns I have given primacy to issues involving women and Native Americans in cases in which they are involved.
The major shortcomings of this beta version of the database are, first, the incomplete rendering of the legacy cases' (pre-1946) legal provisions. We had assumed that the structure of the legacy cases would follow the pattern of those decided in 1946 and thereafter. Unfortunately, we were mistaken. Multiple issues and legal provisions in the modern cases were coded contemporaneously as they were handed down except for Vinson Court decisions (1946-1952) which were coded as a group in the 1970's. I simply added a second or third record to the case when I initially coded it a few days after the Court handed it down. Given that these heritage cases had been decided in the 154 years between 1791 and 1945, it was of course impossible to have followed the current procedure of entering all case data within a few days of its decision. Adding this additional information would have postponed the release of this beta version of the database for several more years, to say nothing of the alpha version.
Hence, if you are analyzing issue, legal provision, or direction (liberal, conservative, indeterminate), keep in mind that the data pertain only to the first of what may comprise an additional number of issues or legal provisions for any given case. This will be no problem for many studies but for some your analysis may be incomplete. Thus, if you are analyzing all self-incrimination cases, or all those pertaining to the Judiciary Act of 1789, or all state police power cases that pertain to welfare or morals legislation you will have the bulk of such cases, but not quite all.
A second shortcoming is that only the case-centered version of the heritage database is available at present. This presents no problem if you are interested only in case citation, which most users are. The next major release will include a docket-centered version.
I wish to thank my former student, Distinguished University Professor Jeffrey Segal of the State University of New York at Stony Brook for his extremely valuable comments and suggestions on all phases and aspects of the database since its inception in the early 1980's. I also thank Harriet Dhanak, the former programming and software specialist in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University, for her expert guidance and assistance. Her successor, Lawrence Kestenbaum, continued and extended the stellar services on which I had become dependent. Most recently I have relied on the superb technical knowledge and skills of John Schwarz of the Michigan State University Institute for Political and Social Science Research and his talented successor, Jess Sprague. Professor Tim Hagle of the University of Iowa continues to systematically inform me of errors and missing data that I have overlooked. My former graduate students, now well tenured scholars--Sara C. Benesh and Wendy L. Martinek--have shepherded me through the more arcane byways of current versions of statistical software packages. And though this feature of the database is now passe, their previous assistance has been key.
I also deeply appreciate the support provided me by the Michigan State University College of Law and that of Milly Shiraev of the University's Institute for Political and Social Science Research.
Three outstanding individuals are most responsible for this version of the database. Lee Epstein, whose wide-ranging scholarly productivity is unmatched in the world of judicial scholarship and effectively compliments her hard driving even-handed taskmastership; Andrew D. Martin, former chair of the Department of Political Science, professor of law, and Director of the Center for Empirical Research in Law (CERL) at Washington University in St. Louis, and now Dean of the College of Art, Science, and Letters at the University of Michigan, whose methodological competence knows no bounds; and Troy DeArmitt, Technology Director of CERL. Without his masterful skills the database would still be locked into its primitive pre-microcomputer and pre-internet structure. Its transformation into the creatively designed and implemented database you have at hand is Troy's creation.
Compilation of this database has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation. Without its assistance, the database would not exist.
Notes to All Users
1. The Supreme Court Database's research team continuously updates the database. Accordingly, we urge you to pay attention to the date your version appeared on the website and to check whether it is the current one.
2. The codebook now provides five pieces of information for each variable: the name of the variable as it appears in the current version of the Database, the name Spaeth used in previous versions (if applicable), any normalization (changes we made when converting from Spaeth's format to the new web version), and, of course, a description of the variable and a list of its values.
Voting & Opinion Variables