In the beginning, for the empirical scholar, is the question and the hypothesis. Well, mostly and sort of.
In theory, the researcher wishing to explore a research question by quantitative methods formulates a hypothesis and then searches for evidence by which to test that hypothesis. The data to be sought and how variables should be measured and estimated from that data depends on the purpose of the experiment. A variable coded in one way for one study may be ill-suited for another study.
In practice, the researcher’s prior knowledge of sources of data, careful review of the existing literature in the field (which of course consists of earlier studies grounded on data collected and described by others), and ongoing interaction with data gathered for other related experiments may well influence the selection of a question worthy of exploration and contribute to the formulation of the hypothesis framed to examine that subject. To be sure, a scholar must be wary of fabricating a questionable hypothesis solely for the purpose of justifying a study based upon data that happens to be available (or left-over from a prior study) or excessively adjusting an ongoing study to fit the results. But the creative scholar naturally will find him or herself intrigued by the possibilities for further study that are posed by discovery of a new set of data or by identifying an aspect of that data that has been neglected in prior work. The scholar who remains abreast of developments in the field frequently will see implications and possibilities for empirical examination in the data collected and variables adopted by another researcher in a new study. After all, think of how often you find yourself thinking, as you read about a new study, hey, that gives me an idea!
Thus, data collection and variable coding has a strong gravitational pull on the nature of hypotheses formulated and models created in empirical study.
My own area of empirical interest is the study of judges (below the Supreme Court) and how they reach decisions and what influences may affect those decision. Thus, when it comes to data-collection, and the subsequent steps of converting such data into variables that stand in place for background or other elements, my primary interests lies in sources of information about judges and their decisions.
In today’s guest post, and tomorrow’s as well, I will summarize sources of information, some of which is raw data and others of which are already arranged into sets of data and even variables measuring certain aspect of judicial background or arguably influences. In my third post, I’ll discuss certain types of data and coding of variables that I and other researchers have found troublesome, either in terms of finding the information or determining how to measure a variable. In a fourth and final post, I’ll suggest some variables that have been neglected or under-used in the literature, either as an appropriate part of a well-specified model or as worthy of exploration in themselves as part of a hypothesis of influence on judicial decision-making.
In each of these posts, I will be indebted to the many colleagues who have generously responded to my inquiries about these subjects on e-mails lists and through other media. I again have been reminded that those of us who work on empirical study of the courts are especially fortunate to be part of a community of scholars who are generous with ideas, with critique, and with data, including sharing valuable data that they have unearthed and collected at substantial cost and personal investment.
Listed under the categories of federal and state courts, I have provided what may be a familiar checklist for most researchers of publicly-available sources of information. In preparing this list, I undoubtedly have overlooked other valuable sources, which I hope may be added through comments to these postings. Tomorrow I will talk about sources of information that are not as readily available, certainly not through on-line archives, but some of which have potential for rich veins of information.
Spaeth Supreme Court Database (compiled by Harold J. Spaeth)
Songer Courts of Appeals Database (compiled by Donald S. Songer)
Attributes of U.S. Appeals Court Judges, 1801-1994 (compiled by Gary Zuk, Deborah J. Barrow, and Gerard S. Gryski)
Federal Judicial Center (both online at www.fjc.gov and spreadsheets that may be obtained from the FJC) (biographical data on judges at http://www.fjc.gov/public/home.nsf/hisj)
National Archives (Federal Court Records)
Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (including annual reports and statistics on the federal courts)
Lower Federal Courts Confirmation Database (compiled by Wendy L. Martinek)
United States Department of Justice Office of Legal Policy (on new nominees)
United States Senate Judiciary Committee (on new nominees)
Web sites for particular courts for biographical data (e.g., the web site for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which has been singled out as having a wealth of information)
As a general and invaluable resource on backgrounds of judges and sources of information, the indispensable work is Sheldon Goldman's Picking Federal Judges (Yale U. Press 1997), with special attention to the appendix.
State Supreme Court Data Project (a project of Rice University and Michigan State University, compiled by Paul Brace, Kevin Arceneaux, and Chris Bonneau)
For both federal and state courts, researchers on the courts should also be aware of the Judicial Statistical Inquiry Form (created by Theodore Eisenberg and Kevin M. Clermont), which includes subject matter samplings of federal and state trials, as well as bankruptcy proceedings.
In addition, researchers may find it necessary on occasion to return to the traditional sources of biographical information in judge and lawyer directories, such as Martindale-Hubbell, Who's Who in American Law, The Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, and the American Bench.
I’ll continue this discussion about sources of information on judges tomorrow, by speaking about sources of information that are not so public, along with some thoughts on gaining access to that data.