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  • SCOTUSblog Interviews Nathaniel

     BY Eliza Keller

    (Originally published on Jan 5, 2010)

    Erin Miller of SCOTUSblog interviewed Nathaniel before the holidays, and she posted an edited version of the interview on the SCOTUSblog website. In case you missed it, the interview is reprinted below. Leave your comments!

    “A Visual History of the Supreme Court of the United States”: A new artistic project about the Court

    Posted by Erin Miller | Friday, December 18th, 2009 4:49 pm

    If you (like us) keep going back to the Wikipedia list of Supreme Court justices since 1789, you might try a more aesthetic way to get your information: the new Timeplots poster, A Visual History of the Supreme Court of the United States. The “niche info art” poster, which went on the market last week, displays in granular detail the entire history of the Court’s justices, cases, and context. You can see a zoomable image of the poster (and purchase it) at the Timeplots website here.

    The poster plots the timeline of the Court’s justices on one axis against a measure of their relative appointment by Republican or Democratic presidents on the other. But into that basic structure it sneaks a wealth of other information about the Court’s important decisions, events, and personnel.

    The Supreme Court poster is just the first of many planned “Timeplots” of institutions by the start-up Timeplots, Inc. I interviewed the company’s founder, Nathaniel Pearlman, about his project earlier this week. The content of this post largely comes from him.

    The original vision:

    It all started with a class Pearlman took at Yale a couple of decades ago on visualizing information and a job in election data services that he had in the early 90s with a company that produced election maps, but Pearlman only had a chance to begin work on his ideas this year. (Timeplots runs out of the corner of the political technology company he founded in 1997, NGP Software, Inc.) Pearlman, who at one time was a doctoral candidate at MIT studying American politics, has long been interested in the Supreme Court, an institution that he describes as “central to the Republic.”

    The poster’s intent is to capture the “entire sweep” of the Court’s history, both the minute details (what was the confirmation vote of Justice John Clarke?) and the big picture (which ten justices were most notable?). The way he describes it, “you can either zoom into the history in detail or walk back from it and see it all.” A secondary aim is to honor the individuals involved in the Court over time.

    Research behind the poster:

    The “Visual History” was in the works for many months. Most of that time was dedicated to planning the visualization and generating it — but a good deal was spent researching the impressive array of facts.

    The poster includes timelines of justice appointments, chief justices, Solicitors General, the presidents and parties who nominated each justice (including a visualization of the relative influence of each president on the Court), the ideological slant of the Court (reflected in an a separate graph of the most liberal and most conservative justices each Term); momentous events (like the ending of the justices’ duty to “ride circuit” in 1891); constitutional amendments; as well as lists of landmark cases, the justices and their basic biographical facts, notable justices, notable unconfirmed nominees, and longest-serving justices. The data about ideological scores for decisions comes from political science and law professor Andrew Martin, whom the blog recently interviewed about the Supreme Court Database he coordinates.

    Judgment calls:

    Much of the factual information on the plot is publicly available. But Timeplots included some features on the poster that require judgment, like a list of the ten most “notable” justices and the selection of fifty-plus “landmark” cases. Pearlman consulted with constitutional scholars and lawyers on these lists, but welcomes more feedback; he will consider changing them with future updates of the poster.

    Another set of decisions for the poster-makers was which momentous events to include on the graphic. For example, the timeline notes the appointment of the first Jewish justice and the only resignation by a justice.

    The parties of the presidents who appointed the justices and the partisan make-up of the Court are centrally displayed on the timeplot (as the y-axis, in fact). But Pearlman isn’t necessarily suggesting by that choice that politics sway the Court’s decisions. Rather, he says the poster’s objective depiction of the facts lets observers come to their own conclusions about the nexus between the Court and the president. In fact, he notes (even on the poster) that the Timeplot data demonstrates that the link between the ideological slant of decisions and the party whose presidents appointed a majority of the justices is weak over time.

    Future plots:

    The next two planned posters, Pearlman says, are on the Presidency and Congress. Pearlman says he has a list of at least fifty more subjects that he would like to tackle if things go well, but for now they remain under wraps.

    What would a “visual history” of SCOTUSblog look like?

    When I asked him this question, Pearlman showed his mastery of the art of visualizing information by rattling off rapid-fire a list of details he would need about the blog: the number of visitors, when our contributors started working and their tenure, the subjects we have covered during the last five years, and even the frequency of the words that we use.

    Just for fun – intrigued by Pearlman’s words – I generated a word cloud of SCOTUSblog on the web application Wordle.

    More information about “A Visual History” is available on the company’s blog, here. Pearlman can be reached at ngp@timeplots.com.


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