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Sonia Sotomayor 'Reversal Rate' Attack Debunked

6 years ago
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There was some general chatter on Twitter yesterday about heaps of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's cases being overturned by the high court. I turned up a link to a CNN story that listed her cases that had been reviewed by the Supreme Court.

It sure looked damning, but I immediately figured that this was one of those deceptive things, like how most car accidents occur within 2 miles of your house. (That's where most of your driving is done.) I was talking with a lawyer friend about it this morning, and suggested that the reversal rate was probably not atypical, and tied to the court's requirements for cert.

Sure enough, in response to a Washington Times article this morning, Nate Silver at reports just that, saving me a bunch of research I wasn't going to do:
There are two fairly obvious problems with this. Firstly, only five of Sotomayor's opinions have been ruled upon by the Supreme Court. That's hardly enough to reach a statistically sound conclusion. Moreover, as a matter of semantics, most people don't begin quoting percentages until the number of instances is significantly higher than five...

But secondly, a 60 percent reversal rate is actually below average based on the Washington Times' criteria. According to, the Supreme Court typically reverses about 75 percent of circuit court decisions that it chooses to rule upon.
To put it another way, Ted Williams was denied a hit 60% of the time in his best season.
The reason that the reversal rate is so high, of course, is that the Supreme Court has a lot of discretion about which cases it chooses to review and rule upon, and is generally not going to be inclined to overturn law dictated by a lower court unless the legal reasoning is substantially questionable and has a strong chance of reversal. The better metric would probably be the number of decisions that the Supreme Court overturned out of all of Sotomayor's majority opinions -- whether the Court elected to review them in detail or not.
When you look at it that way, Sonia Sotomayor is more like a judicial Ozzie Smith.
Tommy on: Daily Dose:

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