by Ryan Adler
As best as I can recall, my fascination with the US Supreme Court dates back to sometime in the
early 1990s. I know that it preceded the Senate trial of President Clinton, because I held enough appreciation for the Court to be highly annoyed with all of the press commentary about Chief Justice Rehnquist’s revolutionizing of judicial garb with golden stripes on his sleeve. (Sadly, my opinion on how the mainstream press reports on Court matters hasn’t much improved.) Having always had an interest in politics, I’m sure that my interest in the Supreme Court was first piqued by a newspaper headline written by a journalist who may or may not have had any clue about the actual legal meat of a particular decision. So, like many others, my interest in the court first grew around notions of what I wanted the Court to say, not necessarily what Justices were actually writing. While those notions remain today, I made a deliberate attempt in undergrad and law school to fully apprehend rulings as they were actually written, as opposed to how they were most often reported. While this distinction may seem like two sides of the same coin, it goes to the heart of something I’ve found to be at the core of any good forecaster.
The Supreme Court deals with a vast spectrum of legal issues, some worthy of headlines and others worthy of the fine print in stereo instructions. For most any Court watcher, nuances of federal criminal procedure, the meanings of terms used in ERISA, and state law tensions with the US Bankruptcy Code make for truly awful and painful reading. They matter to somebody, but not to most. But when it comes to things like abortion, free speech, Fourth Amendment protections, and illegal immigration, alleged constitutional scholars pour out from the darkness like bats from a cave. Irrespective of the actual questions presented in a case, talking heads and journalists unleash a cacophony of nearly hysterical claims about what the decision will mean for the country and for civilization as a whole. That which can be argued as legally correct gives way to philippics imploring people to care one way or another. Anybody familiar with the practice of law understands that the law’s practice must be free from such mentalities if the law holds any hope for extracting justice.
If anybody hopes to be a decent forecaster, he or she must heed a similar admonition. While certainly not alone sufficient, it is absolutely necessary for a forecaster to wear a hat of near-perfect indifference. No matter the broader context of the question – political, social, economic, cultural, or legal – Superforecasters need to find a way to set aside their own real world interests. For me over the years, that need has never been more plainly obvious than in the case of forecasting questions about how the Court will rule on a particular day. Absolute concern with what will happen, and not what should happen, is the only way to keep from putting a thumb on your own scales.