The Persuasive Power of Russian Courts

Article excerpt

Given the centralization of power in contemporary Russia, can nonexecutive institutions exercise some power, especially institutions such as high courts, which are critical to establishing the rule of law? In particular, can high courts influence the Russian public through their power to persuade? Using experiments embedded in three surveys of more than 6,000 Russians each, the authors find that the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, as well as the Duma, have persuasive power but greater potential to persuade tolerant Russians to be intolerant than vice versa. The findings have powerful implications for understanding the judicial role in protecting the rights and liberties of minorities.

Keywords: persuasion; law and society; judicial politics; courts; political psychology; Russia; postcommunism

The establishment of the rule of law depends on the creation and maintenance of an effective judicial system. One measure of an effective judicial system is whether the highest court in the land has the power of moral suasion, or the ability to persuade the public to accept judicial opinions. We seek to understand whether the high courts in Russia have this power to persuade and, if so, whether the courts' power is more influential when judicial opinions reflect tolerant ideals or intolerant ideals.

Our question has theoretical and practical implications. Understanding the influence of high courts on a non-American population can contribute significantly to our more general understanding of courts and public opinion, which to date is heavily skewed by case studies of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Understanding the influence of Russian high courts in particular can speak to the growing debate about the future of the Russian political system and whether its increasing centralization of executive power leaves room for other institutions to influence the public and thereby exercise power. Public persuasion by courts may be the first of many long steps necessary for Russian institutions to feel public pressure to address current problems implementing court decisions (Kahn 2002; Trochev 2002; Hendley 2004; Solomon 2004).

Using experimental designs embedded in three surveys conducted in 2003, 2004, and 2005 of more than 6,000 urban Russians each year, we investigate the potential persuasive power of Russian high courts. We measure initial baseline attitudes toward a widely disliked group in Russia, Jehovah's Witnesses, and then measure acceptance of contrary decisions by three different institutional source cues: the Russian Supreme Court, the Russian Constitutional Court, and as a basis for institutional comparison, the lower house of the Russian legislature, the Duma. Our experiments allow us to test whether opinions can be changed and how strongly, whether tolerant court decisions are more or less persuasive than intolerant court decisions, whether one court is more persuasive than another, and whether the court's potential role as persuader is unique or shared by other institutions such as the Duma.

We find that high courts in Russia do have the potential to persuade at least some urban Russians. The Russian Supreme Court and Russian Constitutional Court have roughly equal potential to persuade, and consistent with prior research, persuasion is easier for each court when the decision reflects intolerance than when it reflects tolerance. The Russian legislature, the Duma, has similar potential to persuade and similarly stronger potential with intolerant decisions, suggesting that some urban Russians may be persuadable not just by courts but by any authoritative institution.

The Persuasive Power of Courts

The persuasive power of courts is considered so integral for judicial effectiveness because persuasion is the only leverage courts have. Famously possessed of neither the purse nor the sword (Hamilton 1787), courts must rest their authority instead on public acceptance of judicial decisions. …