Jacob Berlove, 30, of Queens, is the best human Supreme Court predictor in the world. Actually, forget the qualifier. He’s the best Supreme Court predictor in the world. He won FantasySCOTUS three years running. He correctly predicts cases more than 80 percent of the time. He plays under the name “Melech” — “king” in Hebrew.That is amazing.
Berlove has no formal legal training. Nor does he use statistical analyses to aid his predictions. He got interested in the Supreme Court in elementary school, reading his local paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer. In high school, he stumbled upon a constitutional law textbook.
“I read through huge chunks of it and I had a great time,” he told me. “I learned a lot over that weekend.”
Berlove has a prodigious memory for justices’ past decisions and opinions, and relies heavily on their colloquies in oral arguments. When we spoke, he had strong feelings about certain justices’ oratorical styles and how they affected his predictions.
Some justices are easy to predict. “I really appreciate Justice Scalia’s candor,” he said. “In oral arguments, 90 percent of the time he makes it very clear what he is thinking.”
Some are not. “To some extent, Justice Thomas might be the hardest, because he never speaks in oral arguments, ever.”1 That fact is mitigated, though, by Thomas’s rather predictable ideology. Justices Kennedy and Breyer can be tricky, too. Kennedy doesn’t tip his hand too much in oral arguments. And Breyer, Berlove says, plays coy.
“He expresses this deep-seated, what I would argue is a phony humility at oral arguments. ‘No, I really don’t know. This is a difficult question. I have to think about it. It’s very close.’ And then all of sudden he writes the opinion and he makes it seem like it was never a question in the first place. I find that to be very annoying.”
I told Ruger about Berlove. He said it made a certain amount of sense that the best Supreme Court predictor in the world should be some random guy in Queens.
“It’s possible that too much thinking or knowledge about the law could hurt you. If you make your career writing law review articles, like we do, you come up with your own normative baggage and your own preconceptions,” Ruger said. “We can’t be as dispassionate as this guy.”
Berlove also referenced the current supremacy of the best humans over the machines. “There’ll probably be a few top-notch players up there who can do better” than the computer model, he said. But he added, “With time, they might be able to do what they did to Garry Kasparov, or what they did to Ken Jennings,” referring to IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson supercomputers.
Monday, April 6, 2015
Figuring Out the Supreme Court
Want to know how the Supreme Court will rule on a case? Ask this guy: