The Law, the Blog, and the Historian

By Alan Ball

I started a blog on the Wisconsin Supreme Court a few years ago at the urging of my wife, an appellate lawyer whose career has ranged through both the civil and criminal fields. Apparently, no one had been providing statistical studies of the Wisconsin Supreme Court of the sort created by SCOTUSblog about the United States Supreme Court, and it was suggested—“even you could do this”—that I have a try.  For my part, this seemed like an interesting change of pace as well as a challenge, so I enrolled in a statistics class here at Marquette during my last sabbatical and launched SCOWstats—SCOW standing for Supreme Court of Wisconsin—(www.scowstats.com).

scotusNow, a few years later, I’m still finding my way in some respects, but the response to the blog has been sufficiently encouraging to maintain my enthusiasm for the project. From time to time, Journal Sentinel reporters have relied heavily or entirely on SCOWstats posts for articles of their own, and SCOWstats has been the subject of articles in such publications as Milwaukee Magazine and Minnesota Lawyer.1  Other groups and publications across the ideological spectrum have circulated SCOWstats posts as well, most often via Twitter, though also by means of links to SCOWstats on their own sites.  SCOWstats “followers” include the Federalist Society, the Wisconsin Law Journal, and the State Bar of Wisconsin (whose “Inside Track” publication has drawn on SCOWstats posts for appraisals of recently-concluded supreme court terms). For someone like me, accustomed to the extended gestation period of scholarly volumes, the pace of creation, and especially response, has been exciting.

Along with highlighting SCOWstats overviews of supreme-court terms, the Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Bar’s publications have cited posts on such issues as the voting patterns of justices in Fourth-Amendment cases, the question of whether the late Justice Crooks really was a “swing vote,” the degree of polarization among the justices, and the dramatic decline in the number of decisions filed in recent years. Most encouraging of all have been the opinions written by Supreme Court Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley that included citations to SCOWstats in support of their arguments.

From the outset, an important goal has been to provide readers and myself with a sense of how unusual—or not—the voting and other behavior of the justices might be. Initially I sought to furnish some perspective by comparing the performance of current justices with that of their colleagues in earlier decades, and with this aim in mind I plan to continue pushing farther back into the court’s past.  However, I’ve also begun to explore other vantage points from which to assess the work of the justices in Madison, which has led me most recently to weighing the work of the Wisconsin Supreme Court against that of supreme courts in neighboring states.  To this end, the first of two posts comparing Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin appeared in September, with the second planned for publication in October.  I’m hoping that in the months to come I will have time to expand this spectrum to include the supreme courts of other states.

In the more distant future, I’d like to do something regarding sentencing disparities for various ethnic groups. Although this would have a less direct connection to the supreme court, the present Chief Justice has commented on the topic, and that could serve as a sufficiently-green light for me.  I’m also thinking that during my next sabbatical, I’d take a formal class or two on coding to supplement (that is, eclipse) my current rudimentary knowledge.  If nothing else, this would be a stimulating challenge, and it could equip me to do more with the visual side of the project.

Meanwhile, SCOWstats is sponsoring a fantasy league in which teams of law firms gain points based on the frequency of their appearances before the justices and their degree of success in representing their clients.  Now that our inaugural season is in the books following this summer’s (virtual) awards banquet, I’m sure that the Wisconsin legal community is anxiously awaiting the Selection Committee’s winter meeting, when the rosters for the 2017 season will be determined.

1 Matt Hrodey, “The Truth on Trials. A Historian’s Unique Perspective” Milwaukee Magazine, July, 2015; Mike Mosedale, “Report: High Courts in Minnesota, Wisconsin a Study in Contrasts,” Minnesota Lawyer, July 7, 2016.

Alan Ball is professor of history at Marquette University. He teaches course on Russian and Soviet history and on the Cold War.  He is author of Russia’s Last Capitalists: The Nepmen, 1921-1929 (1987); And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia, 1918-1930 (1994); and Imagining America: Influence and Images in Twentieth-Century Russia (2003).

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