Below the Surface of the Gorsuch Confirmation Hearings

Justice Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court after a relatively quick and seamless confirmation process.  Much went into this process, however, and even though these hearings have become more or less a formality, they are a process that involves much preparation and an extensive time commitment.  Justice Gorsuch’s answers to questions were prototypical of recent confirmation hearings – where he evaded most of the substantive questions by declaring they dealt with issues he might have to face while on the Court.

Even though Justice Gorsuch is already confirmed, transcripts from the confirmation hearing are only now becoming available.  The transcripts allow for a more rigorous analysis of the interactions between Gorsuch and the Senators on the Judiciary Committee and of the Senators’ views based on their questions and statements.

This was a particularly polarized confirmation hearing, which was typified by a confirmation vote almost entirely split along party lines.  When looking at the tone of the prepared statements from the Senators on the Judiciary Committee this divide is readily apparent.


The graph below looks at the Senators’ sentiments and political preferences. The relative positivity and negativity of the sentiment in the Senators’ remarks are measured on the vertical axis, while the Senators’ liberal/conservative ideologies as measured by are captured by the size of the circles associated with each Senator (the size increases with the Senators’ increasing conservatism).

Plot 10.png

As a caveat these sentiment measures only show the tone based on the words and do not necessarily measure the true sentiment associated each Senator’s speech.  The sentiments are increasingly positive as the numbers rise.  The reference line at .5 is the point of neutral sentiment.  Also, Senator Kennedy is excluded because he has not served for a sufficient period to develop an ideology score.

There is a clear correlation in these data between the Senators’ sentiments and their ideologies (which could be surmised in advance).  There are some deviations from this norm including Senator Whitehouse [D-RI] falling into the more positive sentiment camp.

To probe a bit deeper at the sentiments of different actors’ prepared remarks and written statements, here are the sentiment scores for five additional panelists including Professors Solum and Turley, attorneys Jeffrey Lamken and Neal Katyal, and Judge Tacha.

Plot 10 (1).png

Perhaps not surprisingly, none of the aforementioned panelists had negative sentiment scores.  Instead, the two with more neutral sentiments due to the tones of their wordings were Professor Solum and Neal Katyal.  Professor Turley, Judge Tacha, and Jeffrey Lamken all had quite positive sentiments with Professor Turley giving remarks with the most positive sentiment of the bunch.


The Senators words convey additional information not readily apparent in the tone of the remarks.  This information can be discerned by their word choices as well as from the length of their remarks.  First to the length of remarks. The following figure looks at the Senators’ total length of remarks as well as words per sentence.  The color of the rectangles measure the words per sentence and the vertical axis relates to the total number of words in their statements.

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There are two correlations of note in this figure.  First there is a noticeable trend with longer overall remarks coinciding with more words per sentence.  Second, the Senators with longer remarks tend to be the more liberal Senators.  This makes sense if we assume that Senators who opposed Gorsuch’s confirmation would want to speak at greater length to explain their opposition.  The relationship between overall length of remarks and words per sentence provides that Senators with longer remarks probably attempted to fit more substance into each sentence of their speeches.

The Senators also conveyed different messages based on the words they chose to include in their remarks.  Along with the sentiment of the words, the Senators’ wording that had no associated sentiment also had meaning.  The meaning is based on the concepts the Senators’ tried to convey.  Below is a heat map based on the number of times the Senators said specific words.

Plot 12.png

The Senators were diverse in their word use, even with terms we might expect in such a hearing.  “Precedent” for instance only came up in the prepared remarks from Senator Durbin. “Gorsuch” came up in several senators’ remarks and was most frequent in the statements from Senators Cruz and Feinstein.  Senator Durbin was the only one of the Senators to discuss “rights.”  Senator Whitehouse made frequent use of the term “Republicans” and in doing so highlighted the partisan divide present in these hearings.  He also is the only Senator to mention “corporations” in his remarks as well.

Questions and Answers

The Senators interacted with the nominee aside from when they gave prepared remarks.  This interaction sometimes becomes contentious, usually on the part of the Senators rather than on that of the nominee.  There are four Senators’ whose interactions with Justice Gorsuch are analyzed below including Senators Blumenthal, Coons, Feinstein, and Franken.

Moving from the Senator that spoke the most to least during the questions session we begin with Senator Feinstein.  Senator Feinstein spoke 4,247 words in 219 sentences compared to Justice Gorsuch’s 3,525 words and 180 sentences during the same period.  Senator Feinstein had 129 statements and 89 questions during this time.  The distribution of words used during Senator Feinstein’s questioning is graphed as the following:


We can also look at the relative sentiment of the Senator and Justice Gorsuch from this interaction.  Here is a figure showing the Senator’s and Justice’s relative sentiments.


From this figure we see both Senator Feinstein and Justice Gorsuch averaged neutral sentiments across this interaction with Justice Gorsuch slightly more positive than Senator Feinstein.

The other three Senators’ word counts clustered fairly closely to one another.  The Senator with the next most words was Senator Franken with 2,790 words in 126 sentences.  Senator Franken asked 27 questions while giving 99 statements.  This distribution had to do with the fact that Senator Franken exposited views about the nominee and the nomination process during this questioning session.  Justice Gorsuch only spoke 1,254 words for 43 sentences during the same period.


When looking at the sentiments for this interaction there is a bit larger of a disparity between Senator Franken and Justice Gorsuch than was present in the interaction between Senator Feinstein and Justice Gorsuch.


In this interaction Senator Franken’s sentiment was close to neutral while Justice Gorsuch’s remarks were a bit more positive on the sentiment scale than they were with Senator Feinstein’s questions.

Senator Coons was next with 2,592 words across 137 sentences.  During the same interaction Justice Gorsuch used 1,508 words with 67 sentences.  Senator Coons remarks were primarily composed of 80 statements and 48 questions.


Senator Coons also had a bit of a higher sentiment score than that of the other Senators.


Senator Coons and Justice Gorsuch’s sentiments both hover around neutral and are very close to one another.

Lastly Senator Blumenthal used the fewest words of the four Senators with 2202 words across 117 sentences.  During this interaction Justice Gorsuch came the closest in word count to a Senator’s from the same interaction with 1,943 words from 101 sentences.  Senator Blumenthal had the most even ratio of statements to questions of the four Senators with 58 statements relative to 51 questions.


As with the other Democratic Senators, there is a distinguishable difference in polarity between the Senator’s and the Justice’s remarks from this interaction.


While the sentiments of the four senators all were nearly neutral, there was a noticeable difference in the plot for Senator Coons and those for the other Senators.  Other distinctions include the much lengthier session involving Senator Feinstein and the more even divide between questions and statements from Senator Blumenthal.

Looking at these interactions retrospectively, there are clear delineations between Senators that supported and opposed Justice Gorsuch’s nomination.  In a process that is and was fairly predictable in advance, these distinctions are not terribly surprising.  These divergences and particularly the extent of them help provide a spectrum of the Senator’s views of the then judge’s nomination.  They also hint at nuances in each of the Senators’ preferences and particularly at how the words they use related to the tone and sentiments inherent in their remarks.

On Twitter: @AdamSFeldman

Research assistance provided by: @SamuelPMorse

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