Government Pre Grad Intern Ashley Carlisle

Ashley CarlisleIntroduction

When I began working with Michelle in January, I had no idea what was in store for me. Initially I wanted a view at the life of a P.H.D. candidate to make sure that Law School was for me. Previously I had shadowed a 3rd-year Law Student through the I.E. program in the fall of 2010 and observed the pace of life at UT Law. However after the completion of this exploration I still had a few options still roaming around my head, including pursuing a P.H.D. in government, so I figured having Michelle as my mentor would help me assess whether this course was the right one for me. Unlike my last mentor, Michelle aimed the focus of my learning on direct experience and not merely observation. She laid out the schedule upon which I would pursue my own research: the graduate seminar I would prepare for and participate in as well as the professional conference I would attend with her in an effort to experience academia first hand. I am so blessed that she laid out this curriculum because it provided me with a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Reality of Graduate Seminars

The first section of the curriculum was focused on participating in the activities of a graduate student. I was given the reading list for one of Dr. Bryan Jones' graduate seminars on Bounded Rationality and Punctuated Equilibrium Theory in Public Policy processes and was expected to lead a discussion with my mentor and Dr. Jones' on these reading before attending the seminar. It was then encouraged that I participate in the seminar's discussion on these readings. Although I found the reading list very reading intensive, I enjoyed the topics I read about. I found the theory of bounded rationality of individuals in budgeting and public policy processes to be applicable to many other sectors of life. In addition, I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions I had with my mentor, Dr. Jones and the other graduate students about these topics. The discussion provoked me to think about political institutions in a different way and helped me view political actors and actions in a more broad and abstract fashion. Overall I found the graduate class to be enjoyable, however very work intensive and draining, although rewarding overall.

Conducting Political Science Research

Due to my severe interest in the Supreme Court, I embarked upon a research project investigating the effects of judicial ideology on Supreme Court Case Selection. Although Michelle and I both possessed enough knowledge of the court to know that ideology does not play a considerable role in this process due to the fact that the court selects the cases it wants to hear from mostly precedent, recommendations of the Solicitor General, and the presence of conflict between lower courts, I wanted to explore this topic nonetheless.

Most of the electorate does not know a lot about the Supreme Court's processes or actors. The majority of what they know lies within the media coverage they observe routinely. Thus, since the media tends to emphasize the role of ideology in all branches of government, the populous tends to view ideology as a key factor within Supreme Court processes as well. It is this fact that inspired my topic. I wanted to empirically prove the public's perception of the court to prove that what judicial scholars and legal literature proclaims within its rhetoric is actually backed by proof.

This led me to explore the empirical answers to three questions:

Does ideology play an important role in case selection?
Does judicial ideology motivate the selection of cases within different policy areas?
Is there a relationship between the number of cases granted certiorari and ideological make-up of the court?

With this goal, I worked with Michelle closely to develop an appropriate methodology for my project. It was through this process that I realized the level of empirical research and statistical analysis necessary for any political science research. As I spoke with Michelle and other P.H.D. candidates, I began to realize that a major part of their course work resided in the fields of methodology and statistics. For one to be successful in a political science graduate program, one needed to have significant knowledge of regressions, descriptive statistical analysis, and many types of graphing and statistical modeling software. Luckily due to my status as an undergraduate, I was able to develop a less intense methodology for my project. However as I explored the current projects being pursued within the Government Department, I was shocked and impressed by the degree of difficulty present within the methodology being utilized.

I decided to use six case studies examine the role of ideology. Each focused on a period of the Supreme Court with an ideological extreme (i.e. conservative, neutral, liberal) according to a normal distribution of estimated Martin-Quinn judicial ideology scores. I selected two courts of liberal ideology (with aggregate ideology scores falling one standard deviation left of the mean), two courts of conservative ideology (with aggregate ideology scores falling one standard deviation right of the mean) and two neutral courts (which due to the liberal nature of the court overtime, were actually .2 to the left from zero). After selecting these six court periods I decided to explore the role of ideology on the policy areas within the cases they selected for oral argument (certiorari granted) and those they denied (certiorari denied).

To measure the degree to which each court allocated attention to specific policy areas, I calculated the difference between the proportion of certiorari granted and the proportion of certiorari denied cases through using the Policy Agenda Project's Supreme Court Dataset and the 19 major topic areas within the Policy Agendas Project's Coding Scheme. After measuring the attention allocation of each court, I then compared the courts of like ideology against each other. After completing a comparison within courts of similar ideological make-up, I then compared the average of each ideological make up against the others. Thus I ended up with a graph displaying the aggregate differences in attention allocation to specific policy areas between neutral, conservative and liberal courts. In order to study the selectivity of the court in relation to ideology, I calculated the proportion of cases granted certiorari over the total of number of certiorari petitions the court received. After calculating this information, I then charted this data overtime.

From this data I found the following five significant findings:

The attention allocated to policy areas does not differ
significantly between courts of different ideology.
The selectivity level of the Supreme Court has drastically declined over time and shows no relationship to ideology.
The Supreme Court, regardless of ideological standing, favors civil rights and civil liberties, labor and immigration, banking and finance, and governmental operations cases while under attending to law, crime and family cases.
This over and under allocation of attention has continued despite the declining proportion of cases granted certiorari to cases appealed.
Liberal and conservative courts apportion attention similarly to courts of the same ideology while preferences of neutral courts vary considerably from one another. Conservative courts allocate attention across all policy areas more proportionately than other courts, while liberal courts allocate attention the most unevenly.

The selection behaviors of all courts are similar overall, although liberal court attention distribution is more extreme and neutral courts favor banking, finance and domestic commerce cases significantly more than their counterparts.

Research Completion and Presenting at The Midwest Political Science Conference

Through the course of my research project I encountered many obstacles. From the sleepless nights of collecting Supreme Court Case information to the frustration of organizing, collecting, and formatting data and excel, there were many moments where I was tempted to give up. However with the guidance of my mentor I was able to fulfill my goal of finishing my research project in time to present at the Undergraduate Poster Session at The Midwest Political Science Conference in Chicago, Illinois April 12-15. At this conference I was presented with the opportunity to attend many educational and insightful panels about judicial politics and legal thought as well as the chance to present my research to some of the most influential political scientists in the county. In fact the creator of the ideology scores I used, University of Washington Government and Law Professor Andrew Martin, came to my presentation and discussed my project with me first hand.

It was through my experience at this conference that I not only was able to develop new project interests and ways to better my current research, but also gain a glimpse into the life of professional conferences. Not only was I introduced to new data sets, literature and resources related to my current and future research interests, but I also was able to realize the importance of conferences for academia as these venues supply ample networking and editing opportunities for current and future work. Each panel concluded with a discussion/critique section which seemed very vital to the projects of those presenting their research. I used this opportunity to ask questions related to my project and received some great recommendations that I am excited to apply to my research. I was also able to have the opportunity to speak with these political scientists, many of whom are stars within the field of judicial and legal research. Their advice and insight was unique and inspiring.

Through this experience I was able to meet assorted P.H.D students and faculty from around the nation and discuss my research. I received so much helpful feedback and I enjoyed the new perspectives brought by diverse faculty. In addition to the advice I received, I was also presented with a wealth of information about P.H.D., Masters', and J.D. /L.L.M programs throughout the nation. Before this conference, I did not have much information on any of these programs, and I learned so much from discussing with others about their academic background and their recommendations for an undergraduate interested in judicial policy and legal research. I cannot wait to follow up with these contacts and learn more about the opportunities residing within their institutions.


Through the curriculum my mentor and I crafted together, I was able to gain insight into the reality of the P.H.D. program here at U.T. and at this point I am still considering it or similar programs as viable options for the next chapter of my life. From sitting in on Dr. Jones graduate seminar on Punctuated Equilibrium in Public Policy to attending The Midwest Political Science Conference in Chicago, the workload and environment I observed was nothing I could have ever imagined without participating in this program. Before I began this semester I held completely different preconceptions and images of graduate seminars, graduate students and post-graduate research. I am so glad that I chose to participate in this program. I am sad that I will no longer be in an official mentor-student relationship with my Michelle, however I know that as I continue my research this next year, she and my advisor Dr. Bryan Jones will be available to aid my pursuits in any way they can. I cannot thank the I.E. program enough for facilitating such a valuable, helpful and rich experience. Not only was I able to grow as an individual and researcher, but now I am more inspired than ever to explore my options for graduate school.