Emotions, Oral Arguments, and Supreme Court Decision Making

Ryan C. Black, Sarah A. Treul, Timothy R. Johnson, and Jerry Goldman

Published 2011, Journal of Politics 73(2): 572-581 (April).


Students of linguistics and psychology demonstrate that word choices people make convey information about their emotions and thereby their intentions. Focusing on theory from these related fields we test whether the emotional content of Supreme Court justices’ questions and comments made during oral arguments allow us to predict the decisions they make. Using aggregate data from all arguments between 1979 and 2008 and individual level data from 2004 through 2008 we find justices’ use of more unpleasant language towards the attorney representing one side of a case reduces the probability that side will prevail on the merits, both in terms of individual justices’ votes and the overall case outcome.

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