Charting questions for Supreme Court nominees, 1939 to 2010

What do Senators on the Judiciary Committee really want to talk about, when they interrogate nominees for the US Supreme Court?  In recent years, we’ve been able to watch the proceedings on TV, or at least get clips of what reporters consider the highlights. But before C-SPAN and YouTube, many hearings took place out of public view. So, finding a summary of what’s been going on in that committee room for the past 70+ years is an information bonanza. And that’s exactly what Good has made available: a bubble graph that visually represents the topics explored by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the percent of hearing time spent on each topic–since 1939!

The graph is part of Good’s “Transparency” project, which it calls “a graphical representation of the data that surrounds us.”

This graph represents  an amazing research effort. The big issues of the times, of course, take up the bulk of hearing time. Among the highlights, you may find some surprising statistics:

Civil rights: 29.8%. [The second graph further breaks down civil-rights questions by sub-topic and by nominee.]

Judicial philosophy: 12.9%

Criminal justice: 8.6%

Government operations: 3.6%

Statutory interpretation: 0.9%

Federalism: 1.3%

But what’s that large, blue arc stretching [conceptually] from 7 o’clock to midnight on the graph? It’s what the graph-makers call “chatter,” and according to their reckoning, it consumes  35% of hearing time. Senate business as usual? A waste of taxpayers’, Senators’ and nominees’ time? You decide.

You may notice that, in the civil-rights breakdown-by-nominee, Chief Justice Earl Warren is not listed. Good’s footnote offers the interesting tidbit that, between 1939 and 1955, some nominees did not appear at their own hearings. Raise your hand if you think that strategy would fly today.

All in all, Good’s graph is quite enlightening. Take a look: [Having trouble reading our stripped-down-to-fit version? See the original here.]