A brief thought on King v. Burwell

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the GOP’s latest legal strike against the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known colloquially as “Obamacare.” The justices appeared to split largely along familiar ideological lines (with Chief Justice John Roberts remaining mostly inscrutable), but one exchange — no pun intended — stood out to me.

I’ve excerpted the relevant portions below:

 

Something about Justice Scalia’s comments here immediately struck me as bizarre, but I couldn’t figure out exactly why the first time I read it.

I think now I do. The thing is, we’ve come to expect a scarily high level of partisanship on the Court, echoing our broader political divide in the legislature and, indeed, in the nation at large. So it’s no surprise to see Scalia, Alito, et al. bringing out the knives against the solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, Jr. (just as it’s no surprise to see Kagan, Sotomayor, et al. do much the same to Michael Carvin on the challengers’ side).

But what’s interesting here is the specific reasoning Scalia employs in his favor. He had at least two options for how to defend the challengers’ reading of the law. The first, and more obvious, tactic would have been to simply characterize the phrase “Exchanges established by the State” as unambiguous under a strict textualist reading of the ACA, and leave it at that. In essence, he could have just argued that the possibly disastrous effects of eliminating healthcare subsidies in numerous states is simply not a judicial matter and that the law must be interpreted as written, regardless of the outcome. Moreover, this would have been fully consistent with Scalia’s stated originalist approach to jurisprudence.

But he didn’t stop there. Instead, he stated or implied multiple times (in the excerpts displayed above) that, if the consequences were as terrible as Verrilli believed, Congress would step in to fix the problem — in this case, the loss of health insurance to citizens who would have otherwise been covered by Obamacare subsidies.

This is a strikingly odd perspective. As anyone with even a passing familiarity with American politics knows, the chance of a Republican-led Congress — in both houses — enacting emergency legislation to save ACA subsidies is practically zero. Scalia, as someone intimately aware of the American political process, knows this better than most. And so did the audience attending the oral argument, which burst into laughter when Verrilli countered: “Well, this Congress, Your Honor…”

In other words, in a brazen attempt to persuade his fellow justices of the merits of the challengers’ arguments, Scalia made a deliberately disingenuous prediction about the likely outcome of ruling in their favor. Indeed, the idea that Congress would fix Obamacare is so obviously comical that it underscores just how desperate Scalia is to dismantle it: he would gladly suffer the public indignity of making an obviously absurd political prognosis for the mere opportunity to shape his undecided colleagues’ eventual ruling.

This may or may not tell us something about the Court’s likely decision — perhaps it means Scalia is privy to wavering on the part of Kennedy or Roberts, and perhaps not — but it tells us much about the lengths to which Justice Scalia will go to achieve an ideological objective.

Alarmism and the “special relationship”

Not what you expected to see on Speaker John Boehner's home page, eh?
Not what you expected to see on Speaker John Boehner’s home page, eh?

Later this morning, at 11 AM, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make his much-ballyhooed speech before a joint session of Congress (minus a few dozen members). It will contain the same platitudes and hyperbolic warnings — “I am leaving for Washington on a fateful, even historic, mission,” he said, with characteristic understatement — that have been his staple for two decades. (Yes, two decades!) People will clap numerous times. They will stand, sit, and then stand again in a spectacle that would put your average Catholic mass to shame. Bored DC residents (but I repeat myself) are lining up to ask for tickets.

But something is different this time around: namely, Bibi — who is in the midst of a reelection campaign — has managed to anger President Obama more than usual by accepting an uncoordinated invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, which in turn upset a lot of congressional Democrats.

The rhetorical phrase of the moment seems to be “politicizing the special relationship,” which is a euphemism for “pissing off Democrats:”

  • John Kerry: “It was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process. But the administration is not seeking to politicize this.”
  • Samantha Power: “This partnership should never be politicized, and it cannot and will not be tarnished or broken.”
  • Rep. Greg Meeks, D-NY: “We shouldn’t be playing politics on the floor of the House.”
  • Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-IL: “I just think [the Netanyahu speech before Congress] is a very bad idea. It’s politicized — he shouldn’t politicize our relationship and the Congress of the United States.”
  • Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-TX: “But by politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship with an address which will be seen as a refutation of our foreign policy and our president, one that will take place two weeks before national elections in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Speaker Boehner are playing a destructive and reckless game with the U.S.- Israel relationship and will potentially upset the delicate state of our negotiations with Iran and our leadership of the P5+1.”
  • J Street: “Wading into partisan American politics behind the back of our elected president damages the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
  • Benjamin Netanyahu: “The last thing anyone who cares about Israel, the last thing that I would want, is for Israel to become a partisan issue, and I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that. Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”

Enter Jeffrey Goldberg, Netanyahu’s-staunchest-critic-except-when-he’s-in-fact-underhandedly-needling-Obama:

Netanyahu is engaging in behavior that is without precedent: He is apparently so desperate to stay in office that he has let the Republicans weaponize his country in their struggle against a Democratic president they despise. Boehner seeks to do damage to Obama, and he has turned Netanyahu into an ally in this cause. It’s not entirely clear here who is being played.

Therein lies the crux of the issue. It is actually easy to see, with increasing clarity, just who is getting played here, and it is neither Boehner nor Netanyahu: it’s the American public, for being told time and again that, above all, the “special relationship” is at stake and must be protected at all costs. Worse yet, we have to bear these same costs in the form of dead American soldiers, widespread anti-Americanism, and increased insecurity.

And for what? Since when, in the arena of international relations, do permanent “special relationships” even make sense? “America doesn’t have friends. America only has interests,” Henry Kissinger once said. But to this rule Israel is a glaring exception: unlike the American relationship with virtually every other country in the world, the American-Israeli bond is “unbreakable” a priori — its logic depends on nothing. And it is self-perpetuating: the “unbreakable bond” must remain as such because it has always been so: “Israel has always been a bipartisan issue.” (This is, of course, as true as “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”)

Look at the American relationship with China over the past several decades — or with Egypt, or Iran, or even India. These relationships have all seen ebbs and flows, summits and nadirs, depending on mutually expressed interests. By contrast, the Israeli-American relationship, while enduring the occasional bump, including this one — slight hiccups that, in the absence of a genuine rift, nearly always manage to generate a greater media stir than they warrant — has held remarkably steady even as the two nations’ strategic interests drift ever farther apart.

And yet, in view of these contradictions, what we seem to hear most from political analysts is a collective handwringing over the relationship’s “deterioration,” not recognition of its longtime illogicality in the first place.

Goldberg is so torn up over Bibi’s clash with Obama that he wrote a Q&A in which he played both the Q and the A himself.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, warned: “What you’re going to see is a very, very deep disagreement over policy by an American government led by President Obama and an Israeli government for now led by Netanyahu…[which is] only going to get worse if an agreement is struck with Iran, and then you’re in a very serious clash between the two countries.”

A liberal rabbi, John Rosove, got downright Gladwellian: “It’s a tipping-point moment. It’s no longer the Israeli government, right or wrong. The highest form of patriotism and loyalty is to criticize from a place of love.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), the sole Jewish member of Congress, said of Netanyahu’s speech: “It is an opportunity to let not just the Israeli prime minister know, but the Israeli people know, that America is united in strengthening our relationship with Israel.”

Perhaps strangest of all was the statement by aptly-named Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who noted: “When you separate Israel from the policies of its government, it complicates the matter for Congress.” Indeed it does. But whether Netanyahu loses his premiership on March 17th or not, American interests will continue to differ meaningfully from Israel’s. In other words, it is about the state, not just the current government.

For example, Iran poses a much-reduced threat — in any meaningful conception of the term — to the United States in comparison to its effect, however exaggerated, on Israel’s security. ISIS cannot possibly hope to directly threaten American territory in the same way it can worry Israeli citizens. The radicalization of Arab opposition movements poses a greater immediate concern to Israel than it does to the United States. And so on.

Stranger still, the peak alarmism we seem to be reaching now in the upper echelons of the Israeli-American diplomatic clique is entirely contradicted by all available evidence. The U.S. has, for example, placed crippling sanctions on Iran. It’s bombed ISIS. It continues to bankroll billions of dollars of military aid to Israel each year. Just yesterday, while Netanyahu was at AIPAC sowing panic over a potential Iran deal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was at the UN’s Human Rights Council, asking its members to end their “obsession with Israel.”

All this is to say: after watching Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likudnik allies cry wolf, engage in warmongering, and inject themselves into American politics in the past couple decades, we’re learning the wrong lesson when we lament the “politicization” of the special relationship. It’s possible this may be just the gift horse we need.

Why net neutrality is winning

Today The New York Times is reporting that the legislative fight over net neutrality is all but over:

Senior Republicans conceded on Tuesday that the grueling fight with President Obama over the regulation of Internet service appears over, with the president and an army of Internet activists victorious.

The Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to approve regulating Internet service like a public utility, prohibiting companies from paying for faster lanes on the Internet. While the two Democratic commissioners are negotiating over technical details, they are widely expected to side with the Democratic chairman, Tom Wheeler, against the two Republican commissioners.

And Republicans on Capitol Hill, who once criticized the plan as “Obamacare for the Internet,” now say they are unlikely to pass a legislative response that would undo perhaps the biggest policy shift since the Internet became a reality.

Net neutrality has always struck me as an outlier issue in modern American politics. We hear all the time about moneyed special interests and their corrosive effect on the democratic process, but net neutrality seems to be a glaring exception to this general trend — with one huge qualification: while Congress may have surrendered, there’s little chance the telcos are quite as willing to resign themselves to their fate. So the chances of seeing litigation, as opposed to legislation, attempting to overturn the expected Thursday FCC ruling approach 100%.

Nevertheless, I believe there are several reasons for net neutrality’s present-day victory:

1) It is not entirely accurate to paint net neutrality proponents as Davids facing off against the telco Goliaths. Here are just a few of the major brands who’ve come out, at one point or another, in favor of net neutrality:

  • Google: “If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies’ content over others, that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome.”
  • Twitter“Through The Internet Association, Twitter has joined other leading Internet companies to urge the FCC to promulgate common sense net neutrality rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed securing the legal foundation for these rules in Title II of the Communications Act (along with other statutory authority). We strongly support ensuring that such rules include prohibitions against blocking or throttling of sites and services as well as the paid prioritization of some traffic over others. These rules should govern Internet service whether users are at their desk at home or on their smartphone across town.”
  • Netflix“Strong net neutrality rules are needed to stop Internet service providers from demanding extra fees or slowing delivery of content to consumers who already have paid for Internet access.”
  • Tumblr“The FCC has a tool available to them called ‘Title II.’ Rules written under Title II could act as a bill of rights for traffic on the internet, and ensure that cable companies can’t abuse their positions as carriers of that traffic. Through Title II, we can make certain that the future of the internet is in our hands. Not theirs. The internet belongs to everybody. Let’s keep it that way.”
  • Etsy“That’s why I, along with many others in the startup and public-interest communities, started encouraging the FCC to establish new rules protecting real net neutrality under the strongest legal authority available to them — Title II of the Communications Act — allowing them to ban paid prioritization, throttling and blocking. The previous rules were overturned by the courts because the FCC used the wrong legal authority to justify them. This time, we want them to get it right.”
  • Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Amazon, Reddit, Dropbox, eBay, etc.

In other words, the battle lines are more precisely described as existing between old-guard Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon on the one hand and new-school content companies like Google and Facebook on the other. Did all indications originally appear to favor the well-connected, rent-seeking old guard? Absolutely. But the upset was hardly a pure-and-simple triumph of the vox populi. There were moneyed interests at stake for the good guys too.

2) Prominent political writers and journalists are both a) unusually focused on this issue and b) unusually united in their views on it. Net neutrality occupies a strange space in the political landscape in that its general contours are widely supported by the public (even if most people don’t truly understand what it means). This is especially so among the digital-native political set, as you might expect: the dissolution of net neutrality would have especially negative connotations for journalists and writers whose livelihood depends in large part on their ability to propagate content easily and cheaply on the Internet. A world in which establishment outlets like, say, The New York Times, The Economist, and CNN fork over large amounts of cash to obtain preferential treatment from broadband networks is not one in which any other journalist or freelancer wants to live.

3) Net neutrality is generational. Like marriage equality, another issue to which younger people are especially attuned, net neutrality is a generationally-weighted concept that tends to attract similar viewpoints from across the political spectrum. In this way it stands in stark contrast to culture-war issues such as gun control and abortion, which hew to regional and ideological fault lines. Kids and young adults intuitively grasp the transformative nature of the Internet in a way that baby boomers and their elders simply cannot: in short, we’ve seen the Internet, we love it, and we don’t anyone changing it. And like gay marriage, politicians sense which way the wind is blowing and would rather not be remembered for their opposition to something that’s so fiercely defended by so many.

A few things I’ve learned from my hacking projects

A little over a year ago, I started to get serious about learning Ruby on Rails. As a kid, my father had schooled me on the fundamentals of QBasic, and I’d more or less taught myself intermediate-level Visual Basic as a teenager. But as other interests took priority in the following years, my coding hobby fell off and I almost completely abandoned it until 2013 or so.

Even once I slowly began to reenter the world of code, I hardly knew where to start and frequently fell off the wagon (by which I mean I’d completely forget about it for weeks or months at a time). It really wasn’t until last April, when I started focusing on a real project, SCOTUS Search, that I began to find enough inspiration to spend many consecutive hours immersing myself deeply in coding heaven/hell.

Here are a few things I’ve taken away from my experiences in the past year or so:

  • Be nice to developers. I never truly understood what a misnomer an “alpha” or “beta” release really is: end consumers tend to think of this as the shaky, rough first (or second) pass of a new product. In reality, it’s likely the culmination of months or years of painstaking work. Yes, it’s rough and buggy as hell in comparison to commercially available software, and this is a perfectly valid way of looking at it as a consumer. But from the point of view of the developer, even an initial release represents an extremely gratifying endpoint to untold hours spent staring at color-coded lines in Sublime Text and researching arcane error messages on Stack Overflow. So, what I’ve learned? Be nice, even when you’re criticizing. That mobile-unresponsive, typo-ridden monstrosity of a web site is still someone’s baby.
  • Nothing feels as good as overcoming a major coding obstacle, or as bad as being stuck trying to figure one out. There was a point recently where all my work on SCOTUS Search ground to a halt because I couldn’t figure out a relatively simple problem: how to implement an AJAX-powered comment box and make it appear on the page when a user clicked a message icon. For some reason the problem got into my head and I began to see it as this massive unconquerable thing. Once I’d finally discovered how to make it work, I felt like dancing around my living room.
  • If you’re a new developer, your code is almost definitely terrible and embarrassing. I shudder to think what any real developer would think if they saw the way I’ve built SCOTUS Search. And I’ve been telling myself for months now that, once I find a good stopping point, I’m going to go back through all my existing code and clean it all up: use more partials, strip out complicated logic from my embedded Ruby files, optimize my ActiveRecord queries, etc. Yeah, I still haven’t found a good stopping point. And my code keeps getting more and more complex, making any eventual housecleaning even more difficult later on.
  • Version control is an incredible thing. Git is possibly one of the best gifts ever given to developers. Personally, I use Bitbucket for SCOTUS Search (unlike GitHub, Bitbucket allows users to create private repositories for free), but the underlying service is still Git, and it’s crazy useful. If you don’t use it on your project, change that as soon as possible.
  • If you’re in a non-technical position at a company and your engineers tell you your request can’t be done, they’re probably bullshitting you. This is somewhat bipolar of me, given my first bullet point, but there’s rarely something that literally “cannot be done” in coding. Much more frequently it’s simply a) extremely difficult, b) extremely complex, c) extremely inefficient, or d) extremely uninteresting to the developer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be implemented, and if you don’t understand a damn thing about coding, your engineering team is likely using that ignorance to their advantage by making your request sound as impossible as they can.

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts later on, but those were some of the initial things I’ve come to realize over the past year or so. Let me know of others in the comments!

A guide to SCOTUS Search

Guide version 1.0 — February 18, 2015

Last Wednesday I posted an intro note to SCOTUS Search: the free, searchable online database of United States Supreme Court oral argument transcripts that Victoria Kwan and I just launched in beta. The post recounted the development of the idea behind SCOTUS Search, as well as some plans for the project going forward.

Now that the site has seen some traffic (which is extremely exciting!), I figured it would be worthwhile to put together a short guide with some tips on how to best use the site, some caution about its exhaustiveness, and various other marginalia. This post is likely to be updated over time as more things come to mind.

Before I say anything else, though: thank you so much for checking it out! This is a project Victoria and I have been working on, on and off, for the better part of a year now, so it’s really gratifying to see people making use of the site and tweeting out their favorite search results and obscure judicial references. I can’t wait to see what legal writers, academics, journalists, and Court-watchers do with this data going forward.

So, in no particular order:

  • The first thing I must emphasize again, as I did in the intro post (and as is displayed prominently on the SCOTUS Search home page), is that SCOTUS Search is still in beta. What does this mean in practice? A lot of things, actually:
    1. The database of oral argument transcripts is neither exhaustive nor 100% error-free. I don’t mean this to be alarming in any way, but just as a fair warning. As Oyez notes, the Supreme Court only “installed an audio recording system in 1955.” (You can see a visual representation of this lack of transcripts prior to 1955 in the graph displayed on the SCOTUS Search home page.) While Oyez has compiled a truly astounding library of transcripts, there are still many blank cases from 1955 onward that we have therefore been unable to include in SCOTUS Search — as our only sources for transcripts so far are Oyez and the Supreme Court itself. Moreover, as the above link makes clear, the official recordings have endured various hiccups over the subsequent decades that had an impact on transcribers’ ability to ensure perfect quality at times.
    2. For example, in many cases, justices and attorneys are not identified by name in the transcripts and are referred to, instead, as “Unidentified Justice” or “Unknown Speaker.” In other cases, the same speaker is identified differently across cases: “Justice Scalia” and “Justice Antonin Scalia,” for example. Elsewhere, we found examples of misidentification, as when John Roberts was referred to in one transcript as “Chief Justice John Roberts” even though the case was argued prior to his appointment in OT 2005 and Roberts was actually appearing as an attorney arguing before the Supreme Court at the time. Finally, there are also straight-up typos, as pointed out here and here, for example. (Speaking of which…please let us know whenever you find any errors!)
    3. We have attempted to correct as many of these ambiguities and errors as possible. But given the scale of the data, we expect to find hundreds or even thousands of similar examples in various other cases. In the near future, I hope to add an “error correction” form so that registered users can submit changes to transcripts, which we can then review and approve to ensure high accuracy.
  • A lot of you who visited via a link in the Twitter mobile app probably already noticed this, but…SCOTUS Search does not currently play nice with mobile. (Not sure about tablets, as neither Victoria nor I own an iPad and haven’t tested on one yet.) I absolutely plan to add mobile functionality, but I don’t have a specific ETA just yet.
  • There are a lot of “search type” options — eight, to be precise. All of them are case-insensitive: your capitalization, or lack thereof, doesn’t matter at all. But they are super sensitive to spelling, typos, spaces, and so on. E.g. A search for “Superman” ≠ “Super man”. This is another weakness I plan on addressing in the future. Anyway, for most people’s purposes, the three most useful search types will be:
    1. Oral argument: Exact phrase. This search type works exactly as advertised: for example, typing “in my underwear” (without quotes!) will bring you to the sole result for a very confusing, and confused, rumination on bullying and the frailty of human memory by Justice Stephen Breyer. As of today (2/18/2015), using quotation marks with this search type will only return results that actually include quotation marks in the transcript text. Assuming that’s not what you’re looking for, don’t use quotation marks when selecting the “Oral argument: Exact phrase” search type.
    2. Oral argument: All search words. This is very similar to the above search type, except the words in the phrase don’t have to be adjacent to each other in the transcript text. If you type, “baseball hockey,” for example, the results will return all statements containing both words, whether or not they were said immediately consecutively.
    3. Oral argument: Any search words. This will return any statement containing any of the words in the search box.
  • Sign up as a user! You don’t have to do it to use SCOTUS Search, but here are some of the benefits:
    1. It’s free.
    2. You get to write notes on individual cases and statements, as well as favoriting them (for bookmarking purposes). You can even decide whether to make your notes private (viewable only to yourself, which is the default) or public (which can be viewed by any other registered users), and you can look at other users’ public notes as well.
    3. You can export the case titles and metadata of search results (to CSV or XLS format), instead of simply viewing them on the site.
    4. You can save all your searches and set your default search type.
    5. You can receive email alerts any time a case transcript is added or updated (and, as an added bonus, the emails let you know when SCOTUS Map — our sister project — has been updated too).
    6. You get to set your own time zone preferences! Which is, I guess, pretty cool.

Thanks again for checking it out!

Jay

Up next: SCOTUS Search

SCOTUS Search

A little over six months ago, I wrote a short blog post called “Introducing SCOTUS Map.” In the time since, the project has really grown up, entirely due to Victoria‘s relentless research and updates. SCOTUS Map now displays more than 150 events spanning from last summer to this upcoming one, along with links to registration information, transcripts, audio, and video (where available).

Of late, we’ve added new features as well: there are seven default views to choose from (including “Summer 2014,” “2014 Term,” “Summer 2015,” “Future Events,” and so on), the sidebar can be hidden to enlarge the map, and — as of this week — visitors can now subscribe to daily or weekly email alerts in order to receive updates any time new events are added. (If no new events come through that day or week, don’t worry: we won’t send you an email.)

But believe it or not, SCOTUS Map wasn’t the first Supreme Court project Victoria and I had started. Back in April of last year, three months prior to SCOTUS Map’s launch, we took the first steps towards building the first free, searchable online database of Supreme Court oral argument transcripts.

Currently there are two principal repositories of freely available Supreme Court oral argument transcripts. The first is the recently redesigned Supreme Court web site, which hosts transcripts dating back to the 2000 term. The second, and far more exhaustive, resource is Oyez.org, which holds oral argument transcripts dating back to the 1950s.

The idea for SCOTUS Search had first come up in this context early last year: Victoria was writing pieces on the Supreme Court for my blog and needed to delve into the oral argument proceedings in order to conduct research. While she could usually locate a specific transcript on either Oyez.org or SupremeCourt.gov, each one would have to be searched individually. So if, for example, she was looking for all mentions of “gay marriage” before the Court, she’d have to open every single case that had ever been argued over the past decade or two.

This was clearly an impossible task. Making matters worse, the Supreme Court’s hosted transcripts are stored in PDF format, which — while searchable on an individual basis — are not conducive to automated bulk searching across documents. Oyez boasted a much larger library of transcripts in plain-text, which was far superior from a technical standpoint. However, the site had no full-text transcript search engine, meaning that searching for words or phrases would still require manually opening hundreds or thousands of cases. Additionally, some transcripts were missing and others appeared to cut off partway through.

Starting in 2013, Victoria mentioned to me on numerous occasions her frustrations with the arduous research process. And thus an idea was eventually born last year: if we could somehow consolidate Supreme Court oral argument transcripts across sources and standardize them into a database, we could make the full texts searchable online for free, for the very first time.

Over nine months later, the result of this project is SCOTUSSearch.com. Containing over 1.4 million individual statements spoken in nearly 6,700 Supreme Court oral arguments from the 1950s through the present, the site allows users to search the full text of oral argument transcripts using search options that include filters for speaker and Court term. SCOTUS Search is still in beta, so there are doubtless errors and bugs that we’ll discover over time. In fact, we hope that new visitors to the site will help us out in this regard: if something isn’t working or doesn’t make sense, please let us know so we can fix it.

The recommended way to start is to sign up for a free login. This isn’t required in order to search through transcripts, but there are a lot of features which are only available to registered users: adding notes to cases and individual statements (and sharing them with other users, if you prefer), saving your search history, and marking cases and statements as favorites, for example.

An example search result page.

We’re also planning on adding even more substantial tools for registered users only, including the ability to submit transcript revisions and error/typo fixes where applicable. My long-term wish list includes expanding SCOTUS Search beyond the Supreme Court, to incorporate oral arguments from the federal appeals courts (and perhaps international courts). Imagine being able to trace the thought process and rhetoric of Supreme Court justices back to their days on lower appeals courts, or doing the same with attorneys who have argued before multiple courts. In short, the launch of SCOTUS Search is just the beginning of the road, not the end. There’s plenty more to come.

Finally, it cannot be stated clearly enough what a debt this project owes both to the Supreme Court, for hosting over a decade of transcripts, and especially to Oyez, whose tireless transcription and metadata compilation over the years has proved invaluable to many a researcher and journalist, and whose extensive library of transcripts made SCOTUS Search possible.

So take a look when you get the chance, and let us know what you think! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.

Thank you!

Today in Data: Basically, I feel like it’s pretty much terrible out there

This morning I was reading New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman’s mostly scathing review of the design of the brand-new 1 World Trade Center, when I came across this passage:

Like the corporate campus and plaza it shares, 1 World Trade speaks volumes about political opportunism, outmoded thinking and upside-down urban priorities. It’s what happens when a commercial developer is pretty much handed the keys to the castle. Tourists will soon flock to the top of the building, and tenants will fill it up. But a skyscraper doesn’t just occupy its own plot of land. Even a tower with an outsize claim on the civic soul needs to be more than tall and shiny.

Emphasis mine. I’ve always hated the term “pretty much,” at least when used in a newspaper article, and I’ve noticed it appearing more and more of late:

So I decided to compare it to a couple other terms whose common denominator is their collective insistence on near-meaninglessness:

Note: The tool I used to obtain these figures, Chronicle by NYTLabs,  doesn’t differentiate between words/phrases found within direct quotes versus those penned by the reporter him/herself. In the excerpt I quoted above, Kimmelman used the phrase “pretty much” himself, but certainly a portion of the increased usage of these terms in recent years is due to their inclusion in direct quotations, which is (to some extent, anyway) more forgivable from a writing perspective.

Today in Data: A Month in the Life of CitiBike #18068

CitiBike has proven to be quite the hit in New York. As of mid-November, CitiBike claimed that riders had taken 14,589,242 trips since the service launched in May 2013. With approximately 330 docking stations and 6,000 bikes in circulation, that’s a lot of wear and tear on each bike.

In the spirit of finding out just how much of a workout these bikes get, I pulled the latest full month of available bike trip logs from CitiBike’s site, which happens to be August 2014. I sorted by bike ID to determine which specific bike was ridden the most times that month.

This led me to CitiBike #18068, a stalwart two-wheeler with 349 individual trips taken in August — over 11 rides per day. (5,958 unique bikes were ridden a total of 963,489 times in August, for an average of 162 trips per bike.) Using the GeoJSON geographic data convention, I was able to map all of these trips by plotting the starting and ending bike stations on Google Maps:


Today in Data: NYC Restaurant Inspections

New York City, like an increasing number of American metropolises, boasts a decently impressive Open Data web site. A lot of the tables are out of date or otherwise useless, but some of them are pretty cool and are updated fairly often.

Tonight, as a hobby while allowing my digestive system to process copious amounts of turkey, stuffing, and chocolate cheesecake, I downloaded the restaurant inspection data table, which contains over half a million records of inspections within the city over the past several years.

I began by whittling down the dataset to include only inspections that took place this year. Then I removed all inspections that didn’t have a borough field filled out (Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, or Staten Island), as well as removing all rows with anything other than A, B, or C in the field for letter grade. Finally, I filtered out all but the most recent inspection for each establishment — so if a particular diner, for example, was inspected more times due to its uncleanliness (this is official policy), I only included the last one.

This left a final count of 22,105 restaurant inspections in 2014 alone — only the last one conducted for each establishment, and only for inspections resulting in a letter grade of A, B, or C and associated with one of the five boroughs.

First, I checked to see whether any discrepancies existed among the letter grades awarded to restaurants in the various boroughs:

Here’s the same chart in percentage format:

Interestingly, where I began to see a divergence was when I checked grades by month, rather than by borough:

In the winter months (January through March), as well as so far this November, A grades constituted over 90% of all final inspections. From April to October, however, that ratio hovered anywhere from just under 83% to just under 90%. Of course, I don’t have the December numbers for this year yet (time travel has yet to be invented — unless, of course, it’s already happened in the future), but I’d assume it would follow the same general trend: fewer A grades in the summer, more in the winter.

To delve further into this hypothesis, I filtered out all A grades and sorted the remaining 2,648 Bs and Cs by their most common violation descriptions. Here are the top 10:

The top violation is storing food at temperatures that are too high, something that would occur most frequently in the summer months. And indeed, 272 of the 406 total counts of this violation (67%) took place in the four-month period from June to September 2014, for a monthly average of 68 counts. By contrast, from January through May, restaurants were only cited for this violation on a total of 94 occasions, or fewer than 19 times per month.

Indeed, of the five top violations reported in inspections resulting in B and C grades, four involve either overly-hot food or (the potential for) infestation by rodents, flies, and so forth — in other words, classic summer problems.

One final thing you might not expect: the cleanest bill of health given to a specific type of cuisine was for…donut shops. So you’ll know where to find me in the next few weeks:

That’s it for now. Feel free to send me more ideas for how to parse this data, and I may continue this series with other datasets as well.

Matt Bai v. Tom Fiedler

About a week or two ago, I ran across a Matt Bai piece in The New York Times called “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics.” It recounted the by-now familiar saga of the eponymous antihero, the presidential candidate who in 1987 had famously disputed allegations of marital infidelity, remarking: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” Weeks later, Tom Fiedler and his colleagues at The Miami Herald did just that, and the rest is history.

There are several problems with this, Bai argues. First, the Gary Hart story itself —  that is, the version told and retold time and again — is not an historically accurate, nor chronologically faithful, recounting of the events surrounding Gary Hart’s downfall.

But these inaccuracies disguise an even larger problem, which strikes at the root of journalistic self-identity: what is news? Does marital infidelity cross that threshold? Does lying about it?

Bai took a walk down memory lane, briefly touching on the well-known but mostly ignored liaisons of presidents past, and explaining that it was Watergate — and the instant celebrity its exposure afforded Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — that decisively transformed journalism into a perpetual quest for the moralistic coup de grâce. The Point of Journalism somehow shifted to emphasize hypocrisy and moral failures, as opposed to, say, failures of policy.

I think the highest compliment I can pay the piece — and its author, Matt Bai — is to call it challenging. Even as someone who follows both the news and meta-news (that is, news about journalism and the news business), I was struck by how absent these types of questions had been from my mind. For all of us — certainly those who lived through the Watergate era, but perhaps even more so for those of us who’ve lived our entire lives in an ever-thickening cloud of cynicism about the political process — the natural assumption has been that the job of journalists is to take politicians down a notch. Matt Bai took a step back and asked, as if for the first time, why that is.

I suppose it should have come as no surprise, given the tenor of his article, that Bai would soon provoke a response from Tom Fiedler. But what is most astonishing is just how feeble, and just how riddled with unquestioned premises, that reply was. Fiedler asks: “But was it inconsequential when Hart repeatedly, and for weeks before the confrontation, publicly denied that he was a ‘womanizer’?”

Two paragraphs later, Fiedler repeats the question: “That’s not news?” Oddly enough, in both cases he presumes the answer is so patently obvious that it hardly necessitates explanation (which he twice elects not to provide, at least explicitly). But this is precisely the flaw in modern journalism that Bai is questioning: the point is that perhaps this really is not news at all. I’m inclined to agree with him. And Fiedler’s vaguely mocking response doesn’t constitute much of a rebuttal.

Fiedler continues:

Twenty-seven years later, here is the question I would ask of Bai: What should we have done at that moment? Should we have closed our notebooks and caught the next plane back to Miami, concluding that reporting the lie wasn’t newsworthy? That it was inconsequential—and not just to us, but to potentially millions of voters?

Well…yeah. Or perhaps they should never have boarded the plane from Miami to begin with. I can’t speak for Matt Bai here, but it seems to me that this is precisely the question he’s asking: are the lies of Gary Hart newsworthy? But Fiedler doesn’t attempt to answer this: he simply expresses disbelief, repeatedly, that it’s being asked in the first place.

Here he is again:

Some voters might want the media to report a candidate’s positions on the economy, abortion, civil rights, immigration, gun safety and so on. They care little about the candidate’s personal beliefs or behavior. But some voters—indeed, the great majority of voters—are more interested in who the candidate is. This is the much-discussed character issue.

Much-discussed by whom? By the media, of course, of whom Fiedler was a member. At the very least, he’s mistaken correlation for causation. More realistically, he’s simply reversed causation 180 degrees: it’s not that the media discusses character issues because the people want it. People want it, in large part, because the media — conflating journalism and entertainment — helpfully provides it nonstop. Why? Because, among other things, Woodward and Bernstein are household names now, and every other journalist would like to become one as well. Exposing lies, no matter how pedestrian or tangential, is the golden ticket for a career in political media.

Of course, media coverage is an infinitely complex topic, and many factors affect its composition. But Fiedler belies this complexity with his implicit suggestion that it’s not up to journalists to decide what’s newsworthy: “For a journalist to withhold information that more fully reveals the character of a candidate,” Fiedler writes, “would, in my opinion, be a sin of omission.”

But editors commit this sin of omission every day when they decide which stories to run and which to drop, which ones to mount on the front page and which ones to relegate to the back and underneath the fold. Fiedler’s protestations resemble former New York Times editor Bill Keller’s when confronted over his reluctance to use the word “torture” to describe…torture:

Of course, I regard waterboarding as torture. But if a journalist gives me a vivid description of waterboarding, notes the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced it, and then lays out the legal debate over whether it violates a specific statute or international accord, I don’t care whether he uses the word or not. I’m happy — and fully equipped — to draw my own conclusion.

Fiedler’s argument, akin to Keller’s, is essentially: I just provide the facts, and the readers decide whether it’s relevant. But this is patently false: a work of journalism is inextricably interwoven with the countless reportorial and editorial decisions that produced it. The reporter is no more bound to report on so-called “character issues” than he is on a candidate’s proclivity for pets, or fast food, or French films. But to the extent that he relates any of these facts, he has helped fashion the narrative around which that candidate is viewed.

In other words, there’s no such thing as “just the facts, ma’am” in journalism. As it relates to a candidate’s fitness for office, the closest thing to an “essential” element of political journalism is to examine the policy proposals. Marital infidelity — except for the rare cases in which it demonstrably interferes with one’s ability to conduct official business on behalf of constituents — is a long way from that.

Fiedler begins to wrap things up:

Many people forget that although Hart dropped out of the campaign just days after the Herald’s story in May, he revived his campaign in late December of that year and began running the gauntlet that begins in Iowa, goes on to New Hampshire and then stretches nationwide to the nominating convention. His reemergence provided the acid test of whether Democratic Party voters would sublimate the character question to the policy issues.

So what happened? In Iowa, of the seven Democrats on the caucus ballots, Hart finished sixth. In the next stop in the nominating process, New Hampshire’s fabled primary, Hart finished last. Dead last. This time he quit the race for good. Hart’s positions on the issues hadn’t changed from the heady days when he was the front-runner, before Donna Rice and Monkey Business entered the public discourse. What had changed were the voters, who now knew that Hart had been living a lie.

Once again Fiedler fails to understand something as simple as causation. Matt Bai is asking whether we should fixate on matters of personal character to the extent that we do. And Tom Fiedler’s response is to point out that, after his newspaper did so, voters changed their minds about Gary Hart. But this is an answer to a question that no one’s asking.