“All Rise For Chief Justice Robot!”

June 7th, 2015

Sean Braswell at Ozy published an interesting article about whether society would ever embrace robots as judges!

So with the Supreme Court about to issue its long-awaited decisions on gay marriage and Obamacare, the question is, will we be rising for Judge Robot, instead of Justice Roberts, someday? After all, if being an appellate judge, as Roberts suggests, is really just a matter of calling balls and strikes — interpreting a statute, reasoning from precedent, or applying the law in a limited, mechanical fashion — then the gig looks increasingly ripe for automation, something that could be performed better by a computer, and without political or personal bias, age or infirmity, or ugly confirmation battles. Other professions, from factory workers to stockbrokers, have learned that the better the world gets at simulating the outcome of your labors, the more redundant you start to appear. Could the nation’s highest court, along with any appellate court charged with reviewing the application of the law instead of determining the facts, be fairer and more faithful to our founders if a modern-day version of HAL were striking the gavel?

I am quoted in a few spots:

More recently, Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law who started FantasySCOTUS (as a joke), and colleagues have built a more sophisticated model. It correctly predicts about 70 percent of case outcomes, and forecasts accurately 71 percent of votes of individual justices since 1953, representing more than 68,000 justice votes across Supreme Courts from several eras. The algorithm behind the model uses more than 90 variables, including judicial ideology, but also case specifics like what the cause of action is, who the parties are and the lower court from which the case originated.

Forecasting whether the Supreme Court will affirm or reverse a lower court ruling — using, among other factors, the justices’ human biases — may seem a far cry from supplementing the justices altogether, but such prediction models are just the tip of a larger, artificially intelligent spear pointed at the court, and the broader legal services market as a whole. “What IBM’s Watson did on Jeopardy!,” says Blackman, “our model aims to do for the Supreme Court” — which is to say, predict outcomes far better than humans could.


More importantly, as Blackman notes, “even if we could successfully engineer mechanical judges, would the litigants accept our new Supreme Court robot overlords?” Especially for the court’s more momentous decisions — Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, Citizens United — it’s not just the outcome of a case that matters. It’s the court’s rationale. Published opinions sometimes seek to persuade citizens or demonstrate empathy with them, and that reasoning often informs future debates. For example, the importance of the court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas would have come much differently had it mechanically reversed its prior holding in Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld the criminalization of sodomy, and not included Justice Anthony Kennedy’s proclamation that “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today.”