Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Unequal Amendments

All men may be created equal—but not all laws are.

Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787–90, the venerable document has been amended 27 times, but from a legal point of view not all of these amendments are equally important. Some amendments, such as the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, come up again and again in judicial opinions and legal scholarship. Other amendments, such as setting January 20 as the date of presidential inaugurations (the Twentieth Amendment), have rarely come up in litigation or commentary.

Having just graduated from law school, we here at Sauntering decided to produce a visual representation of the vast differences in relative importance of the amendments. What follows is a picture of all amendments written out in a font size corresponding to the relative citation frequency in Supreme Court and federal appellate court opinions. (To get a larger version, click on the image.)

Bill of Rights (First 10 Amendments)

All 27 Amendments

Our Methodology

To get the number of citations of each amendment, we searched AltLaw for “First [Second, etc.] Amendment” and “1st [2nd, etc.] Amendment.” This strategy means that we missed citations to “Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments,” etc.

Furthermore, although AltLaw’s database contains all U.S. Supreme Court opinions back to 1791, it contains only those U.S. Court of Appeals opinions published since 1950. Therefore, we have attempted to account for this by adjusting the citation numbers for the post-1950 amendments.

To deemphasize the immense citation difference between the major and minor amendments, we made the font sizes proportional to the square roots of the citation numbers.

For those readers with more than a passing interest in this little project, feel free to check out our raw data [Google Doc].

A final note: Although I came up with the idea of representing the amendments with font sizes, Sauntering founder and co-blogger Andy did the heavy lifting to research the amendment frequencies and come up with the visual display. Kudos to Andy!


spamchang said...

Well done! Great design, conveys the information up front and intuitively.

The square roots thing is perhaps the only thing I might suggest improvement for (not extremely intuitive). Representation by size tends to go either proportionally (which, as indicated, is too ridiculous) or logarithmically, which is used more often than square root. Plus, people are marginally more familiar with log-style representation through the Richter scale. As an engineer, I'd be interested to see a log scale representation.

You could do one for each decade too, to show where legal trends or social trends are going.

Anonymous said...

Use LexisNexis or Westlaw. Each section/amendment will have a count of cites.