As the U.S. Supreme Court begins its new term this week, LSA sat down with Dean Andrew D. Martin to talk about his research on the court and his views on the cases coming before it. Dean Martin’s expertise is in the study of judicial decision-making, particularly with regard to the Supreme Court. He is the co-creator of the widely used Martin-Quinn Scores, which measure the ideology of Supreme Court justices.

What drew you to the Supreme Court as an area of study, and how did you end up teaming with Kevin Quinn?

Dean Martin: I ended up studying the Supreme Court because it’s an absolutely fascinating institution. If you look at just about any important political issue in this country, the Supreme Court has played a fundamentally important role in how those policies have played out. Even when I was very young, I was quite aware of the important role that the Supreme Court played whether that was through Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, or other types of highly politically salient decisions.

It’s also an anti-democratic institution. We have nine individuals with lifetime appointments who are deciding some of the most important issues of the day. It seems like a great paradox of our democracy in one sense, and I always just found that to be incredibly interesting.

Regarding the Martin-Quinn Scores, Kevin Quinn and I had been working with a particular class of measurement models that have been used to study legislative institutions. Because members of the court serve for such a long period of time and because we knew at least anecdotally that they changed ideologically over the course of their rather long careers, we were interested in building a model to see the extent to which justices were changing not only relative to each other but also relative to their own selves over time.

The logic of the model actually is based on models of sports. We don’t know if Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron necessarily is a better hitter, because they never faced the same pitchers. But Babe Ruth faced pitchers who faced batters who faced pitchers who faced batters who faced pitchers who pitched to Hank Aaron. And so that overlap through time allows you, using some fancy statistics, to do that type of over-time comparison. We built a model to be able to do that careful longitudinal analysis all the way back to 1937, which is an important moment in the court’s history: Roosevelt made his court-packing plan, the court backed down, and that created a new Supreme Court in many ways.

According to your research, are justices today any more or less likely to change their ideological tendencies?

ADM: Not really. The amount of change hasn’t varied much over time, although we also have a relatively short time period. We only have 80 or 90 years’ worth of data, and because people are serving for 10, 20, 25 years, we don’t have a whole lot of instances. But no, the amount of change is not markedly greater or less than it was in the past.

Following last year's decisions in high-profile cases regarding same-sex marriage and healthcare reform, Chief Justice John Roberts—and the court in general—came under fire from some conservatives. Photo by Rena Schild /

How do you view last term’s decisions with regard to same-sex marriage and healthcare in terms of the overall direction of the Roberts court? Are there any justices displaying a remarkable ideological drift?

ADM: Well, the model suggests that the court—and when I talk about the court, I’m talking about the median justice, the justice that sits right in the middle, which on this court is Justice Kennedy—the model suggests that Justice Kennedy did move to the left. The court moved to the left in this particular term.

That, of course, is consistent with what happened in the same-sex marriage case and in the healthcare case. The question is, is that just a blip or part of an overall trend? If I were predicting, I would say it’s probably just a blip.

It is the case that the court moved slightly to the left in the last term. There are some cases coming this term where I have a hard time believing that they’re going to continue that leftward trend.

Which cases coming in this term do you think people should pay particular attention to or are you particularly interested in?

ADM: There’s a handful of them. The death-penalty questions are really important. There’s a very important case about the labor unions in the public sector that could fundamentally affect collective-bargaining rights among public-sector unions. The most consequential case for the University of Michigan is Fisher v. the University of Texas. This is the affirmative-action case that the court punted on a few years ago and is now back for a full decision. That case will have wide-ranging impact with regard to higher education and the University of Michigan, in particular.

There’s a voting-rights case that’s very important this year, which is out of the state of Arizona and gets down to what “one man, one vote” actually means. That’s an election-law case that could be as consequential as any case we’ve seen in the last decade.

And while the court hasn’t granted cert [decided to hear the case] yet, it’s quite likely that there will be an abortion case this term, and that would be the first significant abortion case in a very long time.

With four more cases centered on the death penalty coming before the court this term, do you think the court could be considering a sweeping judgment with regard to capital punishment?

No. I can’t imagine this court as currently constituted changing our death-penalty jurisprudence at all. There could be some modest changes around the margin, but it’s unfathomable to me that this court would say that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

For the Supreme Court to decide to hear a case takes only four votes. So, interestingly a minority of the justices can force the court to take up a particular issue. I think now there are four justices who may be resolved that the death penalty is unconstitutional and at least think the court should take a serious look at the issue. And so I think they’re forcing the issue in a way that hasn’t happened in the past. That’s a hypothesis, but my guess is that the four liberals on the court want to push the issue, and both [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg and [Stephen] Breyer, in particular, have been very public about their views on the death penalty as of late. But I can’t imagine this court making a far-reaching death penalty decision, though I’ve been surprised in the past.