Courting the Public: Judicial Behavior and Public Views of Court Decisions

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Principal investigators:

John T. Scott

University of California, Davis



James R. Zink

North Carolina State University



Sample size: 1205

Field period: 08/03/2006- 08/11/2006


Despite the conventional wisdom, precious little empirical evidence exists to support the causal claim concerning the attributes of Court opinions and individual evaluations of judicial outcomes. Where the Court has been shown to have an effect on the public’s behavioral predispositions towards its policies regards individual levels of “specific” support for the Court and ideological agreement with Court outputs. Scholars have shown that the Court can, at times, act as a “source cue” to the public: Americans view the judiciary as a more “legitimate” institution than the other branches of government, and the Court
can therefore more successfully bend public opinion towards the policies it supports (Hoekstra 2003; Gibson 1989; Gibson, Caldeira, and Spence 2005; Mondak 1991, 1992). Extant research also demonstrates that the public is more supportive of the Court when its decisions are less ideologically divergent from public opinion, which suggests that the Court can ensure compliance by producing outputs that satisfy popular opinion (Grosskopf and Mondak 1998; Caldeira 1986; Durr, Martin, and Wolbrecht
2000). There is no empirical support, however, for the claim that the way in which the Court reaches and justifies its rulings, including the majority size and its treatment of precedent, has any effect on individual perceptions of the Court’s decisions. Existing tests of the relationship between majority size and opinion acceptance have found no effect for the size of the majority coalition (see Mondak 1994; Gibson, Caldeira, and Spence 2005), but there are reasons to suspect that these results are tainted by inadequate research designs. Moreover, although some scholars have examined the role of subjective perceptions of procedural fairness in influencing attitudes toward judicial outcomes (Tyler 1994a; Tyler 1994b; Tyler and Mitchell 1994; Tyler and Rasinski 1991; Scheb and Lyons 2001), this work rests on problematic assumptions about the causal independence of perceptions of fairness from perceptions of institutional legitimacy (Gibson 1991).
The gap between the conventional wisdom and absence of empirical support for it raises the question that motivates our paper: Does judicial behavior, especially the Court’s invocation of precedent and the size of an opinion’s majority coalition, affect public approval or acceptance of judicial policy outcomes? We use an experimental design to isolate the role of precedent and coalition size in respondents’ evaluations of the Court’s decisions.


After controlling for an individual’s ideological position on the specific policy in question (elicited through pre-experimental questions), we expect the experimental manipulations of precedent and coalition size to influence their perception of the opinion. We expect a liberal respondent, for example, to view a conservative outcome that follows precedent more favorably than a conservative decision that overrules precedent. An outcome that is ideologically consistent with a respondent’s preferences similarly should be evaluated more favorably if it follows precedent than if it overrules precedent. In short, when a decision follows precedent or has a unanimous coalition, we predict that respondents will be more willing to accept it even if the policy outcome conflicts with their ideological predispositions. Finally, in addition to controlling for a respondent’s ideological affinity for the policy at issue in these cases, we also control for an individual’s level of diffuse support (i.e., level of institutional loyalty) for the
Court (again elicited through pre-experimental questions), since research indicates that diffuse support is causally linked to individual’s attitudes toward the Court and its policy choices (Gibson 1989; Caldeira and Gibson 1992).

Experimental Manipulations

Participants in the experiment will complete a pre-experimental questionnaire that determines their ideological positions on the two case types in the experiment and their level of diffuse support for the Court as an institution. They are then randomly assigned to one of the ten test conditions (i.e., eight treatment and two non-treatment or control conditions) for one of the case types.


For each case, respondents read the key stimulus (a brief newspaper article describing a fictitious Supreme Court ruling) and then respond to two questions that will serve as our dependent variables, measuring their agreement with the outcome of an opinion and their willingness to accept the decision.


Zink, James R., James F. Spriggs II, and John T. Scott. 2009. "Courting the Public: The Influence of Decision Attributes on Individuals' Views of Court
Opinions," Journal of Politics 71: 909-25