One Fact Sums Up The Problem With the L.A. Times Editorial

About Justice O'Connor's role on the Supreme Court -- the opening sentence is flat wrong. That sentence reads:

One fact sums up Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's pivotal role on the Supreme Court and the enormity of her resignation -- she alone was in the majority of every one of the court's 13 5-4 decisions this last term.

But as Patterico points out, Justice O'Connor was in the dissent in the 5-4 takings "public use" case; in the 5-4 case involving the execution of 16-year-olds; in the 5-4 cases involving the Sentencing Guidelines; in the 5-4 Twenty-First Amendment/Commerce Clause wine shipment case; and more. According to SCOTUSblog (please note that I have not checked the data myself, but I find SCOTUSblog to be quite reliable), she was in the majority last term in 14 of the 24 5-4 decisions. A bit of quick math will tell you that in those decisions, an average Justice would be in the majority in 24*5/9 = 13.333 decisions.

Now ultimately Justice O'Connor was the swing vote in quite a few important cases during her time on the Court; yet by erroneously overstating this tendency, the Times has done a disservice to its readers.

Note also that, as of now (11:13 am Monday morning), neither the original story nor the Corrections page. On the off chance that no-one has yet alerted the Times to this, I sent them a comment this morning; I hope they correct this promptly and prominently (more prominently than is usual for their corrections).

(And, yes, I noticed the "enormity" usage glitch, but I leave that to be discussed by people who are more prescriptivist than I am. To me, the usage is probably more inelegant and ambiguous than "wrong," if the authors meant "enormity" here as "enormous importance," though it would show a great lack of proportion if they meant "enormity" in the more "official" sense of "monstrous evil.")

Eugene: you should check the NYT coverage on Saturday. They weren't wrong, but some of their graphs were just as misleading. Such as the chart showing the concordance between the justices in matrix form--omitting the unanimous cases, which is rather like chopping off the bottom of a graph to accentuate the variation.
7.4.2005 3:46pm
Patterico (mail) (www):
I alerted The Times's "Readers' Representative" to this late Saturday night/early Sunday morning -- seemingly in plenty of time to get a correction out today. But she hasn't responded to the last 5-6 e-mails I have sent her . . .
7.4.2005 4:28pm
Patterico (mail) (www):
And yes, I'm always very polite.
7.4.2005 5:07pm
Robin Roberts (mail) (www):
Who could believe anything else?
7.4.2005 10:37pm
Curtis Crawford (mail) (www):
At 11:30 Eastern time, July 4th, the LATimes had listed no correction concerning the percentage of times O'Connor had voted with the majority, nor had the wording of the editorial's first sentence been changed.
7.5.2005 12:48am
Curtis Crawford (mail) (www):
Would the LATimes numbers be correct if they meant to count only the 5-4 decisions with a liberal majority?
7.5.2005 1:02am
Patterico (mail) (www):
I'm now told the correction will run tomorrow.

Also, I have a commenter who claims SCOTUSblog got it wrong and there were 17 5-4 decisions. I haven't had time or inclination to independently verify this, but I pass it along for what it's worth. I updated my post with a link.
7.5.2005 3:54pm
Patterico (mail) (www):
Well, it turns out that the correction didn't run today, though I was told by the Readers' Representative that it would.
7.6.2005 10:09am