The Truth on Trials

A historian’s unique perspective.

0715_Supreme-Court-Stats_chartAlan Ball is a particularly prolific historian on the Soviet Union. He’s written four books, including a striking one on the fate of homeless children during the early communist revolution. His cozy professor’s office at Marquette University is wallpapered with Soviet propaganda against peasant drinking, bright Russian cartoons, and an inexplicable face emerging from mist. A couple of years ago, his life veered unexpectedly when wife Colleen Ball, an appellate lawyer for the State Public Defender’s Office, suggested that someone crunch statistics for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court in the manner of the popular SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) blog. Having a free summer, and deciding to rise to the challenge himself, Ball crunched and tabulated and began to post his findings at, examining how justices judged and lawyers fared at the lofty court. “It kind of developed a life of its own,” he says, as readership (and entirely welcomed suggestions) began to arrive. “I feel like a kid again, like a graduate student.”

Many of Ball’s findings “confirm things that people already thought,” he says, while also throwing them into sharp relief. For example: Between 1998 and 2013, he found, conservative justices were far more likely than liberal ones to issue rulings that benefitted law enforcement and the state.

Liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson sided with defendants (by throwing out pro-state rulings) 54 percent of the time (see Fig. 1), whereas the present court’s five conservative jurists only did so between 9 percent (Michael Gableman) and 23 percent (David Prosser) of the time. For fun, and to determine the state’s winningest law firm before the high court, Ball culled statistics from 2008 through 2014 and discerned the five winningest firms, as seen in Fig. 2 (those that argued fewer than five cases were not included). This summer, he hopes to test whether the court’s opinions have grown more civil or acrimonious in recent years, as controversies have roiled the institution.

‘The Truth on Trials’ appears in the July 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.