Conservative or liberal, activist or defential, right or wrong — a recent study finds one interesting trend among recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions. Paul Barrett summarizes the results for the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.

… [S]cholars at Dartmouth and the University of Virginia have collaborated on computer-driven research showing that the justices’ opinions are growing “more long-winded and grumpier.” …

The researchers—from Dartmouth, Keith Carlson, a computer science Ph.D. candidate, and Daniel Rockmore, a professor of computer science and mathematics; and from Virginia, Michael Livermore, an associate law professor—studied the frequency of use of “content-free” words, which are also known as function words. The words reveal “stylistic fingerprints” that are “the foundation for the large-scale study of literary style,” the scholars write. …

… [M]odern justices, with their prolific clerks, tend to produce more words than their predecessors did before the mid-1950s. Moreover, the Dartmouth and UVA scholars found, “modern justices’ opinions are grumpier—or much less ‘friendly’ (the percentage of positive versus negative words)—than the opinions of earlier justices.”

And “modern justices’ opinions are written at a lower grade level than the opinions of their predecessors,” the scholars found. Perhaps looking for a silver lining, the researchers concluded that contemporary Supreme Court opinions are “easier to understand than their predecessors.” So that’s something.

Based on a formula involving percentages of negative words (“two-faced,” “problematic”) and positive words (“adventurous,” “pre-eminent”), the authors assembled a master ranking of 107 justices, through 2008, by “friendliness score.” The high court’s first chief justice, John Jay, ranks No. 1 with a score of 1.55 percent. Dead last is Thomas Johnson, a rarely remembered associate justice in the early 1790s who racked up a -2.24 percent friendliness rating.

Illustrating the trend toward grumpiness, Nos. 103 through 106 are current members of the court—in ascending order of dyspepsia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito. Antonin Scalia, who has a reputation for sharp words, ranks at a slightly less grumpy No. 98, with a score of -0.69 percent.

Perhaps Scalia will be inspired by the new rankings to rekindle the rhetorical flourishes that led to a compilation of a full book’s worth of his dissents more than a decade ago.