The Yale Law Journal Online: Judges in Jeopardy!: Could IBM’s Watson Beat Courts at Their Own Game?


In Judges in Jeopardy!: Could IBM’s Watson Beat Courts at Their Own Game?, Betsy Cooper examines IBM’s Watson computer and how it might affect the process by which new textualists interpret statutes. Cooper describes new textualism as being founded on the ‘ordinary meaning’ of language. She writes: “New textualists believe in reducing the discretion of judges in analyzing statutes. Thus, they advocate for relatively formulaic and systematic interpretative rules. How better to limit the risk of normative judgments creeping into statutory interpretation than by allowing a computer to do the work?”

Cooper’s essay considers how Watson – the IBM computer which won a resounding victory against prized human contestants on Jeopardy – might fare as a new textualist. She concludes that Watson has many advantages over humans. For example, a computer can pinpoint the frequency with which a phrase is used in a particular statutory context, and can “estimate the frequency within which each connotation arises, to determine which is most ‘ordinary.’” And Watson avoids bias: “when he makes mistakes, these mistakes are not due to any biases in his evaluation scheme “ because the computer has “no normative ideology of his own.”

Nevertheless, Cooper ultimately concludes that Watson has a fatal flaw: it lacks a normative ideology that is essential for ethical judging. Watson can provide to judges “a baseline against which to evaluate their own interpretations of ‘ordinary meaning,'” but cannot replace the job of judging itself.

Preferred Citation: Betsy Cooper, Judges in Jeopardy!: Could IBM’s Watson Beat Courts at Their Own Game?, 121 Yale L.J. Online 87 (2011).

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