Archive for April 23, 2012

From the Supreme Court to Your Local Courthouse   1 comment

This posting begins a transition from the recent series of blogs and comments pertaining to the rarified world of the US Supreme Court toward consideration of the more mundane and immediate setting of state trial courts. This post raises the question of how what we know about the sources of support for the Court is relevant when we consider support for trial courts. The answer depends, in part, on what we believe drives public support for the Court—and perhaps on the reason that brings a person into the courthouse.

Some political scientists argue that it is the very inaccessibility of the US Supreme Court that underpins its support.  For example, Political scientists John Hibbings and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue: “The Court is more insular than any other political institution, and people like it for that very reason. People do not have to participate in or even see the deliberations of the Court” (pp. 200-201 in Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work). This suggests the Court is wise to prohibit televising of oral argument and, perhaps, that trial courts are doomed to low levels of support.

Other political scientists, however, highlight the role that knowledge of the Court plays in understanding why support varies among members of the public. Studies by Jim Gibson and his colleagues, for example, lead to a conclusion that there is a “to know them is to love them” effect in which the more knowledgeable someone is about the US Supreme Court, the higher their level of support will be (see James Gibson, “Public Images and Understandings of Courts” in Oxford Handbook of Empirical Legal Research, 2010). Gibson asserts that the this effect “is largely a function of the knowledgeable being exposed to highly legitimizing symbols of judicial power: the black robe, the privileged form of address, the deference, even the temple-like building housing most courts.” This suggests that the Court should open up oral argument to the public, and that being involved directly in a case may well enhance a person’s support for trial courts by increasing their level of knowledge.

A majority of American adults have had direct experience in a courtroom as a litigant, defendant, juror, witness, or spectator. Many of them have had multiple experiences with the trial courts, in multiple roles. They see the symbols in the temple-like building but also see the crowded dockets, delays, contentiousness, and compromises of the courts in action.

For at least some of these court participants, a link of the kind described by Gibson between greater knowledge and greater support seems plausible. Jurors are the best example. Former jurors consistently rate procedural fairness in trial courts highly. In a 2000 national survey of members of the public who had had direct court experience within the preceding 12 months, former jurors averaged procedural fairness ratings of 3.6 out of a possible 4.0; this contrasts with former litigants, who averaged 2.7 out of 4.0 (David Rottman et al., Perceptions of the Courts in Your Community: The Influence of Experience, Race and Ethnicity, NCSC, 2003).

A recent book,  The Jury and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2010), by John Gastil and colleagues, reports research that supports a knowledge to support link and also explores the potential impact of the experience of jury deliberation on jurors’ future civic and political engagement. The book is a product and discussion of three related studies conducted by the authors: a national sample of jury service and voting records, a three-stage survey of jurors in King County, Washington, and a smaller series of in-depth interviews with jurors. The book begins with a basic, but perhaps surprising, finding – that the experience of deliberating on a criminal jury causes jurors to become more likely to vote in future elections – the book then explores why the experience of serving on a jury has this effect. Ultimately, Gastil and his colleagues  find that jurors leave the courtroom with increased respect for attorneys and judges, become more likely to pay attention to the news media and discuss community issues with neighbors, and more likely to be supportive of the jury system, local judges, and even the Supreme Court.

A future blog posting will look at the implications of how jurors respond to court experience—and the contrast to those who are in the courthouse for other purposes–for programs to increase support for the state courts.

David Rottman

Posted April 23, 2012 by drottman1 in Courts, Trial Courts, U.S. Supreme Court

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