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UB Law professor maps with Supreme precision

University of Baltimore School of Law professor Colin Starger is on a map quest.

Professor Colin Starger says: ‘The idea is to get many more complete pictures of majority lines of Supreme Court opinions where they are hotly contested.’

Starger is plotting Supreme Court decisions on graphs using software technology to analyze the connections between majority, dissenting and concurring opinions throughout history.

There are two parts to the project. The first is the development of the mapping software itself. Those who use the software are able to connect opinions with lines on a graph and use an animation feature that shows how the relationships evolve.

The second part is the compilation of a map library. Starger has already created nine graphs, which are available on UB Law’s website (law.ubalt.edu) on Starger’s faculty page. Starger has mapped out doctrine in the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act in NFIB v. Sebelius and the application of the exclusionary rule to the Fourth Amendment in Herring v. United States.

“The idea is to get many more complete pictures of majority lines of Supreme Court opinions where they are hotly contested,” Starger said.

He has even created a map for each side of the argument in Maryland v. King, the case dealing with Maryland DNA collection laws the Supreme Court is currently considering.

Both parts of the project, however, are still being developed. Starger said he eventually hopes to win a grant so he can put the program online so that outside users can go to a website and create their own maps.

“I hope it will be a resource and method for students, practitioners and schools who want to learn,” Starger said.

The idea for the software project was spurred by Starger’s research for an academic paper on the role of Supreme Court dissenting opinions. The article, “Exile on Main Street: Competing Traditions and Due Process Dissent,” was published in the Summer 2012 edition of the Marquette Law Review.

“As I was trying to explain the problems in the area of due process, I came up with the idea of visualizing Supreme Court cases,” Starger said.

Starger worked in Silicon Valley as a computer programmer in the 1990s before he decided to pursue a career in law, graduating from Columbia Law School in 2002. When he came up with the idea for the Supreme Court Mapping Project a few years ago, he asked a friend who still works in Silicon Valley to write a program.

The maps are compiled a little bit like a line graph. On the X axis is the date of the opinion, and the Y axis is the number of votes the opinion received. Dots, triangles and squares on the chart represent Supreme Court decisions.

A dotted line then divides the map horizontally. Majority decisions are plotted above the dotted line.

Lines with arrows then connect the different Supreme Court decisions. Dotted lines show connections implied by the person who created the map and solid ones represent direct citations.

“You get this movement back and forth almost like a string of DNA interacting with each other,” Starger said.

What the lines show, among many other ideas, is that dissenting opinions play a significant role in the evolvement of Supreme Court decisions, Starger said.

“A dissent doesn’t always have the official stamp of being law,” Starger said. “And actually, as it turns out, what was the original theory in the dissent eventually makes its way into the majority and vice versa.”

Each map takes Starger about five hours to complete, though, in the beginning, he would work on a map for 50 to 100 hours, he said.

“Although it uses technology, it’s very much rooted in older traditions of close reading of cases,” Starger said.

When he starts to construct a map, Starger first reads the briefs of the petitioner and respondent and checks which cases they cite. He then looks up those cited cases and delves even deeper, looking for still more cited cases, looking at both majority and dissenting opinions.

“I try to play around with it to see if I can distill it down,” Starger said.

Ultimately, Starger said he would like the maps to spark discussion about the connections between the country’s highest court’s decisions.

“I think there’s potential for more honest debate,” Starger said.