Do Attitudes toward Specific Supreme Court Decisions Matter? the Impact of Webster and Texas V. Johnson on Public Confidence in the Supreme Court

Article excerpt

In this article, we revisit the question of whether, and in what manner, attitudes regarding specific Supreme Court decisions influence subsequent levels of confidence in the Court itself. Analysis centers on the impact of the 1989 Webster abortion decision and Texas v. Johnson, the flag-burning edict released immediately prior to Webster Using data from three Harris polls, one conducted just before the two decisions, and two conducted soon after, we design a quasi-experimental test in which data are analyzed using ordered logistic regression. Results demonstrate that agreement with the rulings did affect perceptions of the Court, and that the pattern of effects is indicative of a negativity bias; that is, disagreement with one or both decisions substantially reduced confidence in the Court, but agreement with both edicts brought only a marginal gain in confidence. Results also reveal that these effects did not decay in strength from the time of the first postdecision poll (conducted immediately after the decisions were released) to the time of the second postdecision poll (conducted six weeks later).

In American politics, with one exception, it is axiomatic that public response to the actions of political leaders and institutions influences mass attitudes regarding those actors. The one notable caveat concerns the Supreme Court. Scholars who study the Court disagree on the question of whether public esteem for the institution and its members derives solely from stable factors such as core democratic values, or if citizens alter their evaluations to take into account their views of the Court's rulings. The answer to the question of whether specific decisions matter for broader support has important consequences for how support is viewed. If only core values matter, then a static depiction of support-treating it as a virtually inexhaustible resourcecan be justified. However, if specific decisions can be shown to have an impact on support, then a dynamic view of legitimacy is more appropriate. The most important consequence of such a dynamic conception is that under some conditions the Court's actions may threaten its reservoir of goodwill. In this paper, we test whether decisions do matter by examining the impact of the Webster and Texas v. Johnson rulings on individuals' levels of confidence in the Supreme Court.

Our empirical focus in this article may be specific, but, on a theoretical level, we see several components in the relationship between public opinion and the Supreme Court. Discussion of this broad relationship thus provides context necessary to understand the empirical contribution we hope to offer. We begin by noting that we presume there to be a bidirectional link between opinion about Supreme Court decisions and support for the Court as an institution. Support for the Supreme Court acts as a form of political capital (e.g., Choper 1980; Grosskopf 1996; Mondak 1992). From this perspective, the Supreme Court "spends" a portion of its institutional support when it affixes its imprimatur to controversial policy questions. In short, a popular Court can increase public support for unpopular policy actions, but, by doing so, the Court exposes itself to the risk of diminished public esteem.

The Supreme Court's legitimating function has been demonstrated in several experimental and quasi-experimental studies (Hoekstra 1995; Hoekstra and Segal 1996; Mondak 1990, 1992, 1994). This body of research, which draws heavily on social-psychological theories of information processing, establishes that the Supreme Court can in at least some circumstances elevate public support for a policy simply by issuing a decision. However, this effect does not operate uniformly for all decisions or for all people. Instead, knowledge that the Supreme Court has ruled a particular way increases the perceived legitimacy of a policy the most for those people for whom the issue is of the lowest salience or personal relevance. …