U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

Do SCOTUS Justices Really Avoid Statistics and Math?

Innumeracy (n) - Unfamiliarity with mathematical concepts and methods; unable to use mathematics; not numerate.

According to a recent opinion piece on fivethirtyeight.com, the justices on the Supreme Court appear to shy away from mathematical evidence, formulas, and complex statistics, bordering on innumeracy. However, given the source of this opinionated criticism of mathematical illiteracy, the math-whizzes over at fivethirtyeight may have a higher math bar than most, so SCOTUS may want to take those lumps with a grain of salt.

In short, it's claimed that the justices avoid issues that involve complex calculations or formulas, such as in the recent gerrymandering case arguments. However, where these opinions fail is in the very fact that the gerrymandering case, and many other complex, scientific and mathematical cases, have been taken up in the first place.

SCOTUS Has No Fear of Numbers

While commentators can find examples of when justices may not have relied upon statistics or mathematical evidence, correlation does not equate to causation. For the most part, very few cases really require the justices to practice their arithmetic. SCOTUS is more concerned with the principles of the law and constitution than with the numbers, or even the facts and evidence. Lower courts establish the record, and are the trier of fact. Appellate review handles the review of the legal analysis of the facts of record.

When SCOTUS rules, they tell the judicial officers below them to do something. Statistics, formulas, and other mathematical evidence are not really up for review or debate by the time they reach SCOTUS. The Court may look at the statistics to see if a lower court was justified in relying on them, but expecting more misunderstands how the appellate justice system works.

And when push comes to shove, the justices are fine mathematicians, particularly given that they are lawyers and not mathematicians. However, the math-language police is unavoidable and might write long-winded complaints about how a certain justice used the word exponential instead of polynomial, but otherwise did fine.

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