Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Reviving the Schoolmaster: Reevaluating Public Opinion in the Wake of Roe V. Wade

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Reviving the Schoolmaster: Reevaluating Public Opinion in the Wake of Roe V. Wade

Article excerpt


Many recent studies of the judiciary and public opinion adopt a model that views court decisions as aggravating division within the public. The authors question the image of Court as polarizer, arguing that the persuading influence of the U.S. Supreme Court is broader than contemporary authors acknowledge. Using a potential outcomes framework, the authors analyze public attitudes in response to the decision in Roe v. Wade, the original test case in Franklin and Kosaki's seminal article. The authors' evidence suggests that members of diverse groups who were aware of the Roe decision were more supportive of abortion than their decision-unaware counterparts.


Matching, public opinion, supreme court, structural response, abortion

Do citizens follow the guidance of the Supreme Court on controversial issues? To a greater degree than for other American political institutions, the question of public assent is important for the Court. In Federalist 78, Alexander Hamilton declared that "[t]he judiciary . . . has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment." This statement articulates the Court's fundamental weakness: a body with no formal enforcement mechanism naturally depends on its ability to convince the other branches and their constituents of the legitimacy of its judgments. And unlike the legislative or executive branches, the Supreme Court cannot be forced to quickly respond to public disapproval, as the norm of stare decisis constrains the Court from reversing itself in the face of an unreceptive public even if it were so inclined. During the past half century-a time of significant activity by the Court-a debate has emerged over the Court's ability to convert its stores of legitimacy in the public's mind into support for specific political stances. While early scholarship posits the Court as "republican schoolmaster" (Lerner 1967), efficacious in bringing public opinion to its side, the past two decades have seen the rise of a view emphasizing the divisive fallout from decisions.

Franklin and Kosaki (1989) contend that the republican schoolmaster theory has suffered from an absence of empirical evidence supporting a legitimacy-conferring effect of the Court, particularly in the prominent ruling in Roe v. Wade (decided January 21, 1973), which entered into the divisive political issue of abortion. Addressing the apparent inability of data analysis to demonstrate a causal link between Roe and aggregate public opinion change, Franklin and Kosaki contend that the Court instead acted as a polarizing force in American politics, producing a restructuring of opinion along socioeconomic and sectarian lines. Nevertheless, a number of studies that have emerged since Franklin and Kosaki's article-particularly those utilizing an experimental research design to examine cases other than Roe-have found an overall opinion change in the direction of Supreme Court rulings.

Franklin and Kosaki's finding is not easily reconcilable with these newer works, but their article has nevertheless remained hugely influential in the literature on the Supreme Court and public opinion. This apparent conflict recommends closer examination and specifically as to whether the methodological assumptions present in Franklin and Kosaki's observational analysis may be responsible for the founding of the structural response hypothesis.

This article revisits the question of how the public reacted to Roe v. Wade using a more explicit causal model based on the potential outcomes framework. Its key finding is that, contrary to Franklin and Kosaki, the public actually responded positively to the Court's decision in Roe; moreover, the increases in public support are almost uniformly nonnegative across social groups said to be polarized in Franklin and Kosaki's article. …

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