Public Opinion

In his dissent in Baker v. Carr (369 U.S. 186 [1962]), Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter identified the dependence of the US Supreme Court (or any US court, for that matter) on its legitimacy among the mass public: “The Court’s authority—possessed of neither the purse nor the sword—ultimately rests upon sustained public confidence in its moral sanction” (369 U.S. 186, 267). To put it simply, without legitimacy, without the public’s acceptance, or at least tolerance, for its decisions, the Court is powerless. While Justice Frankfurter was speaking to the US case, his sentiments, as the studies in this section show, can be applied more broadly. Thus studies examining the forces associated with public confidence in the judiciary are a staple in judicial politics research. This section contains five such examples. First, Professors Fix, Randazzo, and Martin widen our lens to the judiciaries of Eastern Europe and examine how public confidence in the courts might develop in newly democratized nations. Perhaps not surprisingly, they find that how far along a country has traveled toward democracy as well as strong institutional bases for the judiciary make a considerable difference in public support. However, these effects are not independent of general support for other governmental institutions, revealing that the echoes of a unitary system are not easily shrugged off. Professor Miles Armaly asks whether the pointed criticism of elected officials can affect the Court’s legitimacy among those politicians’ supporters. Employing an experimental design, he finds this to be the case, a result of some significance given the current era of hyperpolarization where even the courts have become targets of partisan arrows. Professor Morgan also examines the Court’s resilience in the face of attack. Using an experimental design, he finds that partisan attacks on the judiciary’s democratic credentials may land glancing blows at best. In short, the Court’s reservoir of legitimacy remains resilient. Professors Kenneth Fernandez and Jason Husser examine the forces that systematically affect variation in public support for state courts. After reviewing the nature of the judicial systems across the fifty states, they focus their analysis on survey data measuring public support for the state courts in North Carolina. They find that levels of support vary with forces such as education, age, race, and ideology. Their findings are highly relevant given the large policy-making role the states play in our federal system. Finally, Professors Strother and Johnson take up the question of the degree to which the US Supreme Court responds to mass public opinion. Settling a long-standing debate in the discipline, they find little empirical support for the Court bending to the whims of the public’s preferences.

Fix, Michael P., Kirk A. Randazzo, Ana R. Martin. “The Impact of Democratic Consolidation on Public Confidence in Courts.”

Armaly, Miles. “Influence of Politicians on Public Support for the Judiciary”

Morgan, Kyle J. “Experimentally Measuring Responsiveness to Criticisms of the US Supreme Court as Antidemocratic.”

Fernandez, Kenneth and Jason Husser. “Public Attitudes toward State Courts.”

Johnson, Ben, Logan Strother. “Does the US Supreme Court Respond to Public Opinion?”


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