Abraham J. Isserman

I just found the greatest website, the Supreme Court Database (http://scdb.wustl.edu/about.php), a stockhouse of every SCOTUS decision since 1953, all organized in a coherent form for quick digestion.

Screwing around with the data for five minutes, I found that there have been no SCOTUS decisions since 1953 that had less than 3 yea votes and only ONE that had 3. Most decisions have between 5 and 9 votes, indicating that decisons are often split down the center or that the court most often agrees. In fact, there are more unanimous decisions than otherwise, as the set of box plots below indicate:

The single case with only 3 votes was that of Abraham J. Isserman, who the New Jersey Supreme Court had disbarred due to his willingness to defend the leaders of the American Communist Party in 1949, a case which lead to the imprisonment of the leadership. Isserman protested the result and accused the court of pandering to the prosecution and judicial misconduct. This resulted in Mr. Isserman being found in contempt and disbarred. He then spent 4 months in prison. The case rolled it’s way up to the SCOTUS, and with only 3 votes, Mr. Isserman was found to be unjustly disbarred and afterward had his license to practice law in the State of New Jersey reinstated.

An obit of Mr. Isserman is here, he died at 88 years on age in 1988.


One thing I have discovered is that the SCOTUS’ workload has decreased since the 1980s and they tend to unanimously agree much more than they used to. Basically, this implies that they have somehow streamlined the process which decides which cases get sent to court for the full vote, rather than accepting every case that comes by.

Also, since writing this post, I have discovered that the SCOTUS agrees to hear cases per the Rule of Four. Each justice has a legal team tasked to weed through the 7000+ petitions to the Court every year. If the legal team finds a case possibly worthy of being heard, it is referred to the Justice and he is allowed to pitch it to the other Justices. If four justices can agree to hear the case, then the case is heard.

This leads me to question, if four votes are required to hear the case, then the hearing itself is merely a formality to convince at least one other judge to vote with the four who allowed the case to be presented. In fact, most (over 90%) cases that are eventually brought to the full court are ultimately passed. So, what is the point of even having 9 judges, if they are going to mostly unanimously vote in favor of the case. More importantly, where is the decision power in the case that 1 or more judges dissent? Is this dissent in name only? It reminds of the Republican minority in the Senate. You can be as contrary as you like when you have no voting power.

I need to get back to work.


About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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