Monday, May 3, 2021

More on Data and Supreme Court Justice names

In 2012, this blog discussed the popularity of the names of the Supreme Court Justices at the time.  With several new members on the Court since then, it's time for an update.

The following charts show the popularity (by rank) of the first name of each Justice in the year of their birth and in 2019, based on data from the Social Security Administration (SSA):

bar graph shows popularity by rank of the first names of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices in their year of birth: John Roberts, born 1955, rank 5; Clarence Thomas, born 1948, rank 87; Stephen Breyer, born 1938, rank 74; Samuel Alito, born 1950, rank 62; Sonia Sotomayor, born 1954, rank 377; Elena Kagan, born 1960, rank 470; Neil Gorsuch, born 1967, rank 200; Brett Kavanaugh, born 1965, rank 132; Amy Coney Barrett, born 1972, rank 5
Source for year born: U.S. Supreme Court: About the Court
bar graph shows popularity by rank of the first names of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices in 2019 if the rank is 1,000 or higher: John Roberts, rank 28; Clarence Thomas, not ranked 1,000 or higher; Stephen Breyer, rank 311; Samuel Alito, rank 22; Sonia Sotomayor, not ranked 1,000 or higher; Elena Kagan, rank 60; Neil Gorsuch, rank 636; Brett Kavanaugh, rank 820; Amy Coney Barrett, rank 203

As with any dataset, it's interesting to see what patterns the data indicate:

  • Everyone's name was in the mainstream in the year they were born.
  • Only "Samuel" and "Elena" are more popular now than they were when the Justices were born.

Understanding the data is also critical.

  • Does the highly ranked "John" include variations such as "Johnny"?
    • No. In the SSA data, "John" and "Johnny" are each ranked separately as different names. "Jon," "Johnnie," and "Johnie" are also each ranked separately as different names. For that reason, babycenter.com's list of most popular baby names combines spellings of similar names to reveal their "true popularity."

  • Do the name rankings reflect gender classifications?
    • Yes. The SSA data separates "male names" for those assigned or designated as male at birth and "female names" for those assigned or designated as female at birth in Social Security applications. For example, in 1972, "Amy" as a male name was ranked 952 and "Amy" as a female name was ranked 5.

  • How does the SSA collect this data?
    • The SSA explains the source of the data as follows: "All names are from Social Security card applications for births that occurred in the United States after 1879. Note that many people born before 1937 never applied for a Social Security card, so their names are not included in our data. For others who did apply, our records may not show the place of birth, and again their names are not included in our data. All data are from a 100% sample of our records on Social Security card applications as of March 2020."

  • How does the SSA rank the names? 
    • The SSA rankings for each year are based on the frequency of the male name or female name.  If two names have the same frequency, the SSA explains that the names are ranked in alphabetical order.  For example, in 2019, both "Alberto" and "Neil" had a frequency of 422, so "Alberto" received a rank of 635 and "Neil" received a rank of 636.

Here are some resources for understanding data:

Names can be powerful.  Here are some articles that discuss various implications of names:

Finally, for a fascinating look at how data and the law can intersect, see Making the Law Computable (2019) for a discussion of the Harvard Caselaw Access Project.

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