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Predicting Supreme Court rulings -- with software

Supreme Court cases are always closely watched because they set precedence for the entire U.S. justice system. The sooner companies, lawyers and individuals know the court's ruling, the quicker they can adjust strategies.

Now it seems technology is ready to provide a helping hand. According to Daniel Katz, an associate professor of law at Michigan State University, computer modeling has proven "able to predict 70 to 75 percent of the cases correctly" in a given year. That compares to a 60 percent rating for legal experts who also predict outcomes.

"We take past performance of the individual justices as a whole and use that as a guidepost," Katz said in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch.

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A comparison would be "Moneyball," the book and movie about how the Oakland Athletics used statistical analysis of baseball players to create a relatively inexpensive roster that was effective in winning games.

"If I asked an expert, a lawyer or law professor, they might say, 'Gee, I think the court is going to do this for the following reason,'" Katz said. "We're trying to understand [the reasoning]. Although past behavior doesn't necessarily predict future performance, it's often a decent guide."

As with investments, even though previous performance doesn't guarantee the future, it can be an important factor in predicting what's likely to happen.

"You can take this idea and generalize it to a lot of other areas in the law," said Katz. "You could better understand a whole range of other types of litigation, commercial transactions, other things that lawyers do."

The possibility may be useful, particularly in business or political movements, but it has its disturbing side. Just as deep-pocketed parties to a legal dispute or defendants in a criminal proceeding can hire high-powered jury consultants and other experts to help win a case, such prediction methods could provide yet another unequal advantage.

"The fact that you can do this cuts both ways," Katz said. "A lot of these things can on one hand be democratizing, but they can amplify existing inequalities. It's a real concern. I'm definitely cognizant of that. One thing we're doing with this particular project is putting everything online [for free access]."

However, parity, even with free software tools, depends on someone having enough computer skills and historical information to make use of what's available. Perhaps in the future, people dealing with the courts might have to hire a technical consultant right after they find a lawyer.

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