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Just How Conservative Was Neil Gorsuch’s First Term?

While the Supreme Court is off for its summer recess, scholars have been busy trying to decode the early votes of its newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch. Where does he sit on the court, ideologically? How has he affected its political dynamics? And what does that bode for future cases?

The most prominent measure of such things are called Martin-Quinn scores, after their creators, political scientist Andrew Martin and legal scholar Kevin Quinn. Much like the popular DW-Nominate scores do for legislators, these measures aim to pinpoint justices’ ideologies on a left-right political spectrum using statistical techniques based on the justices’ votes. Martin recently provided FiveThirtyEight with their latest scores, including the court’s 2016-17 term, hot off the statistical press.

“The scores show Gorsuch somewhere between [Chief Justice John] Roberts and [Justice Samuel] Alito, but much closer to Alito,” Martin said in an email. “Actually, Gorsuch is statistically indistinguishable from Alito when you look at the standard error (which is huge). Because Gorsuch has participated in so few (non-unanimous) decisions, the model (statistically conservatively) pulls him toward the middle.”

Gorsuch’s maiden Martin-Quinn score is 1.344. (Higher positive numbers represent more conservative positions.) The final score of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom Gorsuch replaced, was 1.577. Even with his small sample size, Gorsuch is lining up with the court’s conservative bloc and is beginning to resemble the “Scalia clone” we predicted in January. Gorsuch’s score is also comparable to certain select terms of recent right-leaning justices Sandra Day O’Connor (1.382 in 1986) and William Rehnquist (1.371 in 2003).

As my colleague Harry Enten and I observed in June, Gorsuch has sided with the court’s most conservative member, Justice Clarence Thomas, in every case so far. And while that certainly hints at a far-right tendency in Gorsuch, too, there is a classic problem: small sample size. Gorsuch has weighed in on only 15 cases in his young Supreme Court tenure.

“Thomas’s ideal point is estimated from a ton of data this term (and previous terms) in which Gorsuch didn’t participate,” Martin said. “If, counterfactually, he had agreed with Thomas in all of those cases, he’d be equally extreme, but to make the call on this very small set of cases isn’t plausible. If, next term, Gorsuch and Thomas dissent in a bunch of 7-2 decisions, then, yes, Gorsuch will move to the right of Alito and approach Thomas. Time will tell.”

Last term lacked the headline-making fireworks of recent high court history. But the court is scheduled to hear a number of blockbuster cases in its next term, which begins in October. It will weigh in on President Trump’s travel ban, Wisconsin’s redistricting map and same-sex marriage and the First Amendment. Gorsuch will no doubt play a key role — but exactly how conservative he’ll be remains a statistical uncertainty.

Oliver Roeder was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied game theory and political competition.