Comparing Predictions from Cert Grant to Decision Day

March 31st, 2010

In this week’s 10th Justice, we consider how predictions for cases are spread out over time, both before and after oral arguments, and how the statistics for the sets differ throughout the lifecycle of a case. In this context, we will discuss three different cases: Bilski v. Kappos, Alabama v. North Carolina, and McDonald v. City of Chicago. Although these cases have slightly different characteristics, timing in the term, and total number of predictions, the three cases serve as examples of different interest level strata.

For our purposes, Bilski represents a specialized interest, Alabama represents a highly technical interest, and McDonald represents a general interest case. The lifecycle of each case has been divided into four quarters. To calculate the quarters, the total number of predictions for each case was divided by four. The predictions were evenly divided into four quarters, with varying dates. These quarters will show how predictions differ  varying points from the granting of cert to the decision date.

Bilski is a patent law case which addresses whether or not the “machine-or-transform” test is the proper test for patents. Because of its importance to scientific and industrial concerns, this case could be considered specialized, but still accessible to individuals outside of legal practice. Because the case was argued before FantasySCOTUS went online, pre-oral argument data is not available, and the 1st and 2nd quarters are heavily weighted toward November and December. In addition to having a wider date range, the later quarters also introduce more uncertainty into the predictions. The 4th quarter proportion is marked in blue because it is only significant at a 90% level. One explanation is that the delay in rendering a decision causes user to be leery of a certain outcome due to justice disagreements or resolution of difficult problems. Overall, the case is still strongly predicted to be an affirmation.

Predictions for Alabama v. North Carolina, and McDonald v. Chicago, after the jump at

As for Alabama, this case considers whether or not non-state entities can join in a Supreme Court case between two states over water rights. Although the question is important enough for the Supreme Court to address, its outcome would be context specific and of little interest to those outside the involved parties, making it a highly technical case. As expected, the case has not generated a large amount of predictions. Unlike Bilski, the first and last quarters span around two months, with the middle quarters of predictions occurring in January. Oral arguments occurred on January 11th, which explains the concentration of activity. Once again however, the later predictions introduced more uncertainty, with the third quarter being not significant and the fourth significant at a 95% level. One possible explanation is that the justices telegraphed a possibility of reversal during the oral arguments. The predictions before 1/11 yielded an affirmation rate of 91% (+/- 16.5, with 21 predictions), but 71% (+/- 16.18 and 52 total) afterwards. Combined with the drop in the 3rd quarter, these statistics show that the argument for affirming was perceived weaker after oral arguments. Overall, predictions still lean strongly toward an affirmation in this case however.

McDonald, the 2nd Amendment incorporation case, is one of the hot topics in this SCOTUS term as evidenced by media coverage and general interest of the case. Out of the three cases, this one had the most total predictions. The timeline for the quarters is approximately a month per quarter. Once again, later quarters are more uncertain of the case’s outcome. The 2nd Quarter’s statistical insignificance may just be due to the controversial nature of the case, but the 4th Quarter fully accounts for the effects of oral arguments on 3/02. Before oral arguments, 69% (+/- 10.62, 131 total) of predictions showed a reversal, but 74% (+/- 13.46, 66 total) of predictions guessed a reversal after arguments. Although the 4th quarter was also not significant, it seems that oral arguments strengthened perceptions of reversal for this case. Additionally, it seems that the majority of users made their determinations about the case before oral arguments. This means that the uncertainty in the 4th Quarter may either be resolved or worsened as time progresses until a decision.

Overall, these cases show that regardless of the level of interest and technicality, users have a moderate indication of which way the court will go. As for timing, it seems that for all cases, the longer a decision takes, the more uncertain the outcome is. Although this seems like a truism, it is important to determine whether or not predictions take account of time flow. Additionally, the timing of oral arguments is important for predictions, if nothing else for getting users to make the predictions. As shown by Alabama, technical cases become more popular in terms of predictions after oral arguments. However, in general interest cases such as McDonald, most users come in with a strong preference for what they think the outcome will be. An alternative explanation is that oral arguments act as a substitute for time, allowing users to become more informed about the intricacies of a case. In a future post, we will explore whether or not oral arguments make a statistically significant difference for predictions.