This Article proposes a novel and provocative analysis of judicial opinions that are published without indicating individual authorship. Our approach provides an unbiased, quantitative, and computer scientific answer to a problem that has long plagued legal commentators.
United States courts publish a shocking number of judicial opinions without divulging the author. Per curiam opinions, as traditionally and popularly conceived, are a means of quickly deciding uncontroversial cases in which all judges or justices are in agreement. Today, however, unattributed per curiam opinions often dispose of highly controversial issues, frequently over significant disagreement within the court. Obscuring authorship removes the sense of accountability for each decision’s outcome and the reasoning that led to it. Anonymity also makes it more difficult for scholars, historians, practitioners, political commentators, and—in the thirty-nine states with elected judges and justices—the electorate, to glean valuable information about legal decision-makers and the way they make their decisions. The value of determining authorship for unsigned opinions has long been recognized but, until now, the methods of doing so have been cumbersome, imprecise, and altogether unsatisfactory.
Our work uses natural language processing to predict authorship of judicial opinions that are unsigned or whose attribution is disputed. Using a dataset of Supreme Court opinions with known authorship, we identify key words and phrases that can, to a high degree of accuracy, predict authorship. Thus, our method makes accessible an important class of cases heretofore inaccessible. For illustrative purposes, we explain our process as applied to the Obamacare decision, in which the authorship of a joint dissent was subject to significant popular speculation. We conclude with a chart predicting the author of every unsigned per curiam opinion during the Roberts Court.