Supreme Court confirmation hearings involve much pomp and circumstance. Recent nominees including Gorsuch (thus far) shy away from directly answering substantive policy questions, generally resorting to the retort that they do not wish to speak on issues that might come before the Court. For the senators, part of the confirmation game is strategic. Prior to the nominees’ introductory remarks, various senators provide statements about the nominee. These statements are designed to help frame an understanding of the nominee, of the nominee’s history, and possibly to provide somewhat of a window into whether the senators will vote to confirm or reject the nominee.
These senatorial remarks are prepared well in advance of the confirmation hearings, often with help of a variety of resources at senators’ disposals. These remarks include language which may give away some of the senators’ feelings about the nominee, even if the senators do not intend this outcome from their speeches. With the help of sophisticated text analysis tools, this post looks at various linguistic aspects of some senior senators’ preliminary remarks from recent confirmation hearings. The Justices covered in this analysis are Justices Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan. The senators are Leahy, Feingold, Feinstein, Hatch, Grassley, and Kohl.
The following Figure places these senators on an ideological spectrum running from 0 (liberal) to 1 (conservative) based on their 2016 votes (Senators Feingold and Kohl’s values are removed since Senator Feingold ended his senatorial career in 2011 and Senator Kohl did the same in 2013).
As we can see, Senators Feinstein and Leahy line up on the liberal end of the spectrum with Senator Feinstein slightly lower than Senator Leahy. Similarly, Senators Hatch and Grassley’s scores place them at the conservative end of the spectrum. While these scores give some information on how the senators might vote at the end of the hearings, the language the senators use also provide insights into their voting and strategic behaviors.
There are multiple dimensions of tones that the software can analyze within the broader categories of emotional, language, and social tones. This post focuses on four areas per nominee that where the senators conveyed strong or differentiated tones. Since these areas of interest differ between each Justice there are some areas the same and some that are different when examining each of the Justices.
For Justice Alito the four areas of interest are analytic, confident, tentative, joy. Looking first at analytic it should not be surprising that all of the senators convey strong analytic tonality.
While Senator Kohl has the strongest analytic tone and Senator Leahy the least, there is a small range of differentiation within this area.
Next for confident tones only three Senators conveyed sufficiently confident language to rank on this scale.
The three senators with confident tones are three of the four democrats in this set. Perhaps because the nomination stemmed from a Republican President, these Democratic Senators attempted to overcompensate by exuding confident speech.
Most of the senators were not tentative in their initial remarks during the Alito confirmation. In fact only two ranked on the tentative scale.
The most tentative senator was Senator Kohl followed by a modicum of tentativeness from Senator Hatch.
There was only one senator that conveyed a strong joyful tone.
Aside from Senator Hatch, a Republican, the remainder of the senators in this set had only minimal joyful expressions in their speech.
Since Justice Sotomayor was nominated by a Democratic President and Justice Alito was nominated by a Republican we might expect opposite tonalities from the senators. The areas for Justice Sotomayor are analytic, confident, fear, and joy. The first tone area for Justice Sotomayor, like for Justice Alito is analytic.
Although all of the senators have strong analytic tones here as well, there is a noticeable drop from Senator Hatch at the high end and Senator Leahy on the low end. Senator Hatch’s highly analytic tone may imply an interest in an expansive analysis of the candidate.
The same trend with confidence tones is apparent with Justice Sotomayor as was the case with Justice Alito.
In this instance, the senator with the most confident tone is Republican Senator Grassley. The other senator that exuded confidence in speech was Democratic Senator Leahy.
Another emotional tone that the senators conveyed is fear. Although most of the senators place low on the fear index, Senator Grassley placed high in this category.
There was a higher average level of joy expressed by the senators during the Sotomayor hearings than during the Alito hearings.
In contrast to the Alito hearings, four of the Justices conveyed a joyful tone during the Sotomayor hearings. The only two senators not to have a high joyful tone were Senators Leahy and Grassley, a Democrat and a Republican.
The tone areas for Justice Kagan’s hearings are analytic, joy, tentative, and confident. As with the hearings for the other Justices the senators convey a strong analytic tone across the board in the Kagan hearings.
Here the spectrum ranges from Kohl at the high end to Leahy at the low end – both Democratic Senators.
Three of the senators expressed a strong joyful tone during the Kagan hearings.
The three senators with strong joyful tones were three of the Democratic Senators: Leahy, Feinstein, and Feingold. Senator Kohl was the outlier among with the Democrats with a low score on the joyful index.
On the tentative scale, there is a mix among the senators
While Senator Feingold was the most tentative, Senator Hatch was close behind. Democratic Senators Feinstein and Leahy also had somewhat tentative tones as well.
Finally, only three of the senators conveyed confident tones during the Kagan hearings.
The three of the four Democratic Senators – Leahy, Feinstein, and Feingold all conveyed confident tones. The two Republican Senators as well as Senator Kohl did not fall on this confidence scale.
The senators’ diverse tones during the confirmation hearings did not translate into any surprises in their voting behavior as the table below shows. The senators all voted per party lines in all three hearings.
The finding of a disconnect between some of the sentiments conveyed by the senators in their speeches and their voting behavior is a testament to Supreme Court confirmation hearings regularity. We often think of regularity in confirmation hearings according to evasive answers from the judicial nominees. These tone analyses show another trend, this time by the senators. Here we see that the tone of senators’ speeches do not necessarily foreshadow how they will vote. In fact, party affiliation was a much clearer predictor of votes than the senators’ use of language in their speeches.
We should see this trend become even more pronounced in the Gorsuch hearings and specifically in the senators’ votes. With the Democrats frustration over the handling of Judge Garland’s nomination there is a strong incentive for most Democratic Senators to vote against confirming Judge Gorsuch. The tone of the senators’ speeches should not dictate how they will vote to the same extent that party affiliation does. While some Democrats might cross party lines and support Judge Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, the strong presumption is that the votes will be predominately partisan and leave little to the imagination.
On Twitter: @AdamSFeldman