Dirty Pool

by Henry on October 29, 2004

Some fascinating new evidence on US Supreme Court decision making and (perhaps) on Bush v. Gore from my colleagues Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman and Paul Wahlbeck in the latest issue of PS (the complete paper is here). They’ve uncovered smoking-gun quality evidence that Justice Rehnquist has been running a betting pool on US presidential elections – there’s a copy of the bets (and results) for the 1992 election among Harry Blackmun’s papers (you can see an extract below). In 1992, six members of the Court anted up $1 each for each of the 50 states and for the District of Columbia. Thus, there was a pool of $6 for each state, which was divvied up evenly among those Justices who correctly predicted the winner for that state. As the Chief Justice described the results of the pool in his cover note:

The net result is that Sandra has won $18.30, Harry has won $1.70, John and I have lost $6.30, Tony has lost $2.30, and Clarence has lost $5.10.

Maltzman, Sigelman and Wahlbeck run a series of statistical tests on the Justice’s performance, finding that the justices’ exposure (or lack of same) to mainstream media and first-hand knowledge of the state in question have statistically significant effects. They demonstrate that the level of Supreme Court productivity sags during election years, suggesting that the Justices are “preoccupied with cramming for the office pool.” More pertinently, for recent political events, they suggest that this may have affected the Judges’ incentives in Bush v. Gore – to the extent that the judges had money at stake, they had, to put it mildly, an interest in swinging the result. As the authors remind us:

During an election night party in 2000, Justice O’Connor apparently became upset when CBS anchor Dan Rather called Florida for Vice President Gore, She exclaimed “This is terrible!” and then proceeded, “with an air of obvious disgust,” to walk off to get a plate of food (Thomas and Isikoff 2000). Speculation abounded at the time about why O’Connor was so distraught, but our revelation of the operation of a Supreme Court gambling ring opens up a new possibility: If, as she had done in 1992, O’Connor predicted that Florida would go Republican in 2000 (an outcome she subsequently helped to assure), then her outburst probably stemmed from dismay at the prospect of falling behind in the election pool.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it.

{ 14 comments }

1

Kieran Healy 10.29.04 at 5:45 pm

“The net result is that Sandra has won $18.30, Harry has won $1.70, John and I have lost $6.30, Tony has lost $2.30, and Clarence has lost $5.10.”

That’s fantastic! O’Connor kicked everyone’s ass, and Rhenquist, Stevens and of course Thomas are totally out of it.

2

decon 10.29.04 at 5:51 pm

Perhaps Rhenquist and Thomas have graduated to TradeSports. No wonder the Bush EC prices have been so whacked.

3

Jackmormon 10.29.04 at 6:38 pm

This is a wonderful find. All hail the archive.

4

jet 10.29.04 at 7:14 pm

Great satire. Funny stuff ;)

5

neil 10.29.04 at 7:19 pm

This has got to be some sort of sick joke. Pete Rose, eat your heart out.

6

Henry 10.29.04 at 7:58 pm

The commentary is tongue-in-cheek, obviously, but the evidence of the Supreme Court betting pool is 100% legit.

7

g 10.29.04 at 9:09 pm

Forgive me for stating the excessively obvious (and for being hoaxed if I am being) … but it occurs to me that (1) those are awfully small sums of money, (2) I’d kinda-sorta expect the SCOTUS members to bet larger sums if they were going to play for money at all, (3) I’d also expect them to abbreviate their bets both for convenience and so as to be less embarrassing if the thing got discovered, and (4) if there’s any truth mixed in with the satire of the commentary, then larger sums provide better explanations than smaller ones. So … perhaps those numbers really represent thousands of dollars?

8

n 10.29.04 at 9:38 pm

I’d kinda-sorta expect the SCOTUS members to bet larger sums if they were going to play for money at all

Why would you expect this? Seems like a weird expectation. Playing for money doesn’t have to be serious; injecting just a little bit of money makes it exciting, and thus fun, without the downer of losing your shirt. Since lawyers are usually risk-averse people, I would fully expect them to bet tiny amounts (if at all).

9

Chris Lawrence 10.29.04 at 9:39 pm

I personally enjoyed footnote #5. Actually I don’t know how I missed this one in my current PS (I just stuck it up on the shelf today after skimming it Wednesday when I got it).

10

2718 10.29.04 at 11:46 pm

I hope the commentary is tongue-in-cheek. Though I agree that Bush v. Gore was wrongly decided, I don’t think it had anything to do with a harmless betting pool among the judges. In fact, the existence of this betting pool was reported around the time the Blackmun papers were released. It seemed unremarkable then, and it seems so now. The Judges are serious people who would not let their vote be swayed by a betting pool. (Of course, there is a deeper question about what motivations the judges did have. Still, I think the judges, themselves, genuinely believed they were doing the best thing for the country.) If we stop believing that our political opponents are not, at least, decent people, then in Jon Stewart’s words, “We’re in bad shape fellas.” Now, if this post is meant to mock the kind of quick-trigger document-waiving that passes for debate in the news culture, then it’s dead on!

11

2718 10.29.04 at 11:48 pm

I hope the commentary is tongue-in-cheek. Though I agree that Bush v. Gore was wrongly decided, I don’t think it had anything to do with a harmless betting pool among the judges. In fact, the existence of this betting pool was reported around the time the Blackmun papers were released. It seemed unremarkable then, and it seems so now. The Judges are serious people who would not let their vote be swayed by a betting pool. (Of course, there is a deeper question about what motivations the judges did have. Still, I think the judges, themselves, genuinely believed they were doing the best thing for the country.) If we stop believing that our political opponents are not, at least, decent people, then in Jon Stewart’s words, “We’re in bad shape fellas.” Now, if this post is meant to mock the kind of quick-trigger document-waiving that passes for debate in the news culture, then it’s dead on!

12

g 10.30.04 at 12:27 pm

n: Maybe I’m just psychologically distoibed; I don’t find that betting a small amount of money is any more exciting than betting no money (or matchsticks, or abstract points, or whatever), but I can see how putting some serious money on the line might add a certain buzz. Perhaps that’s unusual; if Rehnquist et al differ from me in this respect then my kinda-sorta-expectation would be wrong.

13

Matt Weiner 11.02.04 at 12:23 am

G–I personally would find small bets exciting because I just plain enjoy being right. For no reason whatsoever, I suspect that Supreme Court Justices share this trait with philosophers, so they would find small bets exciting too. (And I don’t make bets on the election, because I suspect I wouldn’t enjoy the outcome.)

14

Kenny Easwaran 11.02.04 at 5:11 am

I keep expecting a disclaimer to come along in each paragraph as I read through. But it never quite reaches Onion-like proportions. Is this really real? And if so, is Clarence Thomas really that bad?

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