Public Opinion and the Court

By Marshall, Thomas R. | Judicature, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

Public Opinion and the Court


Marshall, Thomas R., Judicature


Public opinion and the Court Public Reaction to Supreme Court Decisions, by Valerie J. Hoekstra. Cambridge University Press. 2003. 190 pages. $60

Over recent decades both academics and judges have puzzled over the tie between Supreme Court decision making and American public opinion. Can the Supreme Court's decisions actually win over more public support for the Court's position? Do the Supreme Court's rulings actually affect the Court's own approval ratings?

Valeric Hockstra's innovative book, Public Reaction to Supreme Court Decisions, tackles these two riddles with an imaginative research design. Past books and articles rely on experimental studies, matches between Supreme Court decisions and nationwide public opinion polls, or nationwide polling trends. Hoekstra, however, discusses two points. First, the tie between Supreme Court rulings and public opinion can best be understood by examining pre-to-post decision poll shifts. second, most Supreme Court cases are not landmark cases, like Bush v. Gore or Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. casey, but rather lower-profile rulings that mostly affect one particular community.

She conducts four separate case studies using two-wave panel surveys of local public opinion on Supreme Court rulings. Hoekstra's four case studies tap both the Court's civil liberties and economic agenda. The Lamb 's Chapel case involved a Pentecostal group that was denied permission to use a New York school district's auditorium to hold meetings and show religious films (although nonreligious groups were permitted to hold meetings there). The Kiryasjoel case involved a public special-education district in upstate New York set up expressly for Hasidic Jews. The Oklahoma tax case involved whether the state of Oklahoma could collect taxes on gasoline sold by Chickasaw Nation Indians on tribal land. The Sweet Home, Oregon, case involved whether the Endangered Species Act preserved the habitat of endangered species, particularly the rare spotted owl, and notjust the species themselves. None of these four disputes rank as the Court's best-known rulings, but they are arguably typical examples of Supreme Court decisions.

National media coverage may be slight for most Supreme Court decisions, and sometimes even nonexistent (as for the Oklahoma gas tax case). Yet local papers cover most local disputes that reach the Supreme Court. Indeed, the number of local press stories ranged from 6 to 25, and Hoekstra cites local coverage as generally thorough and factually accurate. As a result, more than 70 percent of local residents were aware of the Supreme Court's decision in the two civil liberties cases, and between a fifth and two-fifths of local residents were aware of the economic rulings. These local awareness levels compare favorably to nationwide awareness of high profile, landmark Supreme Court rulings. On the average, those in the immediate community involved were much more familiar with the eventual ruling than those in nearby communities. Nearly all better-educated media-watchers correctly understood the decision.

Poll shifts

The book's meat and potatoes lies in Hoekstra's careful examination of pre-to-post decision poll shifts on the four disputes. In only one case did the Supreme Court pick up significant support for its ruling in the post-decision poll. Overall, public opinion moved modestly toward the Court's ruling in civil liberties cases, but moved not at all in economic cases. …

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