Good Judgment Inc > Decoding SCOTUS: Navigating Media Bias in Supreme Court Forecasting

Decoding SCOTUS: Navigating Media Bias in Supreme Court Forecasting

Superforecaster, GJ managing director, and leader of Good Judgment’s question team, Ryan Adler shares tips on how to approach forecasting Supreme Court decisions.

May is a lovely time of year. Lots of daylight, newborn critters all around, and Supreme Court junkies start to get their fix from now through the end of June. As someone who has watched the Court enthusiastically for more than a quarter of a century, I always look forward to decision season. However, in all those years, I’ve learned a painful lesson. The press is generally terrible at reporting about the Court. For Court junkies like me, it’s not that big of a deal. I learned early in my studies that if I want to know what a case means, I need to dig into the weeds myself. But as someone who has also written dozens of SCOTUS forecasting questions, I know that many forecasters don’t have the benefit of having read thousands of pages of appellate decisions to instruct their analysis. So, as is the case for anybody forecasting on a topic with which they aren’t intimately familiar, they lean on press reporting to fill in the gaps.

“Creating an emotional investment in the outcome of a case is poison for a forecaster.”

Alas, most journalists and talking heads intent to tell readers and viewers “how it is” end up just regurgitating heavily politicized schtick from one side of the aisle or the other. A glaring example is Trump v. United States, the presidential immunity case out of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. For the vast majority of the press, it’s a question of what the Court will let happen to Trump in Jack Smith’s federal election interference case. For anyone who understands the Constitution and listened to oral arguments in the case, the Court knows it’s grappling with something much bigger and fundamental than Trump’s actions and statements on January 6th. Questions of presidential immunity go to the heart of the structure of the US’ separation of powers, perhaps the greatest innovation from the Founding Fathers that has proven key to good governance in modernity. Framing the case as democracy in peril (you can find such arguments from both Trump’s supporters and detractors) is, in this writer’s opinion, theater. This isn’t to say that the events of January 6th are nothing of concern, nor does it make light of the potential precedents to be set. But let’s be honest: if the party affiliation of the defendant in this case were flipped, who honestly thinks that the arguments from the “legal experts” in the media wouldn’t look far different? That doesn’t make these people liars, but it highlights that these “experts” are doing something very different than what we ask forecasters to do—figure out what will happen irrespective of what they feel should happen. Such “experts” placate and/or infuriate, which is how politics works.

What is to be done?

Creating an emotional investment in the outcome of a case is poison for a forecaster. We can debate all day about the political implications of a Court decision, and the nine robed ones don’t operate in a vacuum. That all notwithstanding, there is a stark difference between being mindful of political factors that influence the conversation among them and acting as though those implications represent the sole axis upon which the case will turn. It may seem hard not to see anything and everything through a political lens, and most media outlets have given up pretending that their reporting isn’t first run through a political prism.

So, what is to be done? As James Madison stated that ambition must be made to counteract ambition, this writer suggests that cynicism must be made to counteract cynicism. Take the words of any legal “expert” or talking head with a large grain of salt. Being a lawyer doesn’t make you an expert on the Constitution. Many lawyers who practice would probably admit that the last time they paid attention to constitutional law was prepping for a bar exam. That fact is not mitigated by gaining the title of “contributor.” If what you read or hear feels like it’s what you may personally want to read or hear, be suspicious. That’s sound advice for anything in the media, but it’s especially crucial for navigating the flood of gibberish that inundates the airwaves and web when a high-profile case makes it to Washington.

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