Academic journal article Justice System Journal

Vouching for the Court? How High Stakes Affect Knowledge and Support of the Supreme Court

Academic journal article Justice System Journal

Vouching for the Court? How High Stakes Affect Knowledge and Support of the Supreme Court

Article excerpt

Building on the geographic constituency theory of awareness of Supreme Court decisions, we conducted a panel survey in Cleveland, Ohio before and after Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld state-funded vouchers in religious schools. We found several characteristics predict awareness: news consumption, income, and knowledge of and positive feelings toward the Court. Our results also showed those vested in the outcome, such as African Americans, religious individuals, and parents were more likely to change their attitudes in favor of the decision and become more positive toward the institution. These findings help us understand the circumstances under which some individuals may become vested in court decisions.

KEYWORDS: Supreme Court, legitimacy, public opinion, media

With the Supreme Court's decision on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) looming in an election year, President Barack Obama held a press conference in the Rose Garden on April 2, 2012, where he asserted, "Ultimately I am confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress" (Daly 2012). The president's comments highlighted the precarious position the judiciary holds in the United States. While the Justices can act without fear of electoral reprisal, ruling against the preferences of the public as expressed by elected branches of government could jeopardize the Court's legitimacy. Political pundits agree that this quandary was clearly on the Chief Justice's mind when he ruled in favor of the PPACA, providing the critical fifth vote for the majority. Chief Justice Roberts' opening words in the opinion he authored suggest that the proper role of the judiciary and its legitimacy were paramount in his decision-making calculus to uphold the individual mandate as a tax. In Natl. Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), Roberts argues that the role of the court is limited, and the Justices "do not consider whether the Act embodies sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the Nation's elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenged provisions."

While anecdotally this suggests the justices take into account the support of the public, the data suggests that the public knows little about the Court's activities. Further, while most political scientists harbor a belief in the ability of the Supreme Court to affect public opinion (Caldeira 1991, 304), empirical validation of this belief has been problematic. Studies have analyzed congruence over time between broad patterns of public opinion and court policy, each concluding that there is substantial correlation between the two (Flemming and Wood 1997; Mishler and Sheehan 1993; 1996; Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson 1995). However, beyond this higher-order lagged association, a direct relationship between the Supreme Court's influences on public opinion remains elusive. In part, the lack of evidence supporting a direct relationship is due to measurement issues: surveys seldom pose questions regarding the Supreme Court. In the rare instances when respondents receive questions concerning recent decisions, the question wording seldom matches the true issues at controversy before the Court (Durr, Martin, and Wolbrecht 2000, 768). Methodological issues also abound: analyses often fail to control for other factors influencing the Court's ability to shape public opinion, such as awareness of the issue and level of media attention.

Hoekstra and Segal (1996) suggest that while aggregate research calls into question the public's knowledge of the Court, local awareness is possible. In general, few cases garner national attention, while most Court decisions speak directly to particular constituencies, suggesting that proximity to the decision will affect awareness (Hoekstra 2000; 2003; Hoekstra and Segal 1996). …

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