We (Mark Hall and Ron Wright at Wake Forest) have been asked to host a discussion forum this week on using systematic content analysis to study the legal content of judicial opinions. If any empirical method is especially well-suited to legal studies, surely it is content analysis since this is the established scientific method for reading any type of text. Most of us are familiar with several good examples that apply this method to law cases. But, until we started looking systematically and keeping track -- i.e., doing a content analysis of content analyses -- we had no idea how much this was being done, and for how long.
Take a wild guess: How many published projects use systematic coding to study the legal or factual content of judicial opinions? To keep you reading, the answer is at the end. (Teaser: It’s more than a couple dozen.) And, what are the largest such studies, when were they first done, and who has done this the most? (Hint: Cornell is not in any of these answers.)
We don’t include the many fine examples of “docket analysis,” which code only for information obtained from docket sheets or brief abstracts (subject matter, parties, outcome). We also don’t include the many interesting studies of courts’ citation patterns. Instead, we’re interested in research projects that code cases for the same material used in traditional interpretive legal methods: facts, law, or judicial reasoning.
(Drum roll) And the answers are:
- There are 125 distinct coding projects (some with many publications)
- The first was published in the 1957 by political scientist Fred Kort
- The rate jumped from <1/yr before1990, to >6/yr since 1990
- The largest are the State Supreme Court Database (Brace & Hall) and the Court of Appeals Database (Songer). Each has over 20,000 cases.
- The longest is the United States Supreme Court Judicial Database (Harold Spaeth), which began in the mid-1980s and is still ongoing (9000 opinions)
- Karl Llewellyn (1960) and Richard Posner (1972) were among the early users of this method
- The most frequent content analyst is Willy E. Rice at St. Mary’s (8 projects).
For more detail, see Systematic Content Analysis of Judicial Opinions.
Tomorrow, we summarize how much of this work is being done by law professors vs. Ph.D. scientists. For now, let us know what you think: Are you surprised by how often content analysis is being used to study the legal content of cases? And, why do you think this method has catapulted since 1990?