The celebrity judges of the UKSC?

Hyper-attentive newspaper readers might have heard of Neuberger or Hale, but few others

The death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has caused some in the UK to reflect upon the levels of publicity given to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (UKSC), and the judges who comprise it.

Of course, no sooner had Henry Zeffman penned something for the New Statesman bemoaning our general lack of awareness of the UKSC, than the court handed down its joint enterprise decision in R v. Jogee, in a stroke attracting more attention to the court than it had had at any point over the past four years.

Even if the court were consistently to deliver opinions as important as Jogee, press coverage of the UKSC would be different from the coverage accorded the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), both in degree and in kind. Coverage of SCOTUS, in my view, emphasizes much more the positions and personalities of individual judges. This can be seen right from the nomination process. Justices in the US can be assigned "liberalism scores" based on the content of newspaper editorials supporting or opposing their nomination. David Weiden has gamely tried to extend these scores (called Segal-Cover scores) to Canada and Australia: but there is simply no possibility of doing the same for the UK, since judicial appointments here sometimes pass by unnoticed.

This does not mean there is no coverage of UK Supreme Court justices. Penny Darbyshire, in her excellent book Sitting in Judgment, chose not to interview or observe Baroness Hale, because “there [was] a mass of biographical information… in the public domain” (p. 368). As I’ll show below, it’s true that Baroness Hale has attracted more attention from the media, and some of that extra attention is probably due to the fact that she is the only female Justice of the UKSC.

But how does the coverage of a Hale compare to that of a Hughes? To find out, I searched Nexis for articles in UK national newspapers between 1st January 2014 and the present date which referenced “Lord X” and “Supreme Court”, for different values of X. (For Hale, I used “Lady Hale” OR “Baroness Hale”: Debrett’s suggests that both are permissible, not that such advice would or should matter much to journalists).

The number of articles mentioning each judge (excluding duplicates) is shown in the Figure below. Judges are listed in decreasing order of seniority.

As might be expected, there is a huge gap between the number of articles mentioning the President and Deputy President of the Court, and all others. Lord Sumption has the highest media profile of the remaining judges.

You get a very similar figure if you exclude articles from the Times. The Times occupies a special role as a newspaper which reports important legal cases as a matter of course. It contributes a hefty chunk of the articles in the above graph, but when we subtract their articles from the totals, the relative order is very similar.

Of course, these differences in coverage may simply reflect the fact that the President and Deputy President of the court write a disproportionate number of leading judgments. If journalists decide first to report on cases, and mention the identity only of the author of the leading opinion, then this kind of pattern might emerge. A systematic content analysis (of the kind that I really must do at some point) could identify those judges who are only ever discussed in the context of a particular judgment — and those who, for various reasons, enjoy a modicum of personal celebrity.

That modicum of celebrity is modest indeed. If we exclude the Times, then a front-page-to-back-page reader of all other UK national newspapers would only see Lord Toulson mentioned twenty times over the course of two years. It’s hardly rock-and-roll, but I suspect they like it that way.

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