Archive for June 2012

The Healthcare Decision: First Reaction   3 comments

Although we’ve emphasized that it takes time to assess the public’s reaction to a Supreme Court decision—and the effect of that reaction on the public’s goodwill toward the Court—blogs operate in the here and now. So we venture forth with some initial, tentative thoughts.

If opinion polls are a reliable indicator, the public may be disappointed in the outcome of the case—a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 41% wanted the law struck down altogether and another 27% wanted the individual mandate struck down while keeping the rest. But the Court has had many opinions over the years that have gone against the trend in current public opinion, and in the past that hasn’t caused any lasting damage to the Court’s overall support from the public. In fact, one of the features of the Supreme Court in the past has been its ability to make unpopular decisions without losing public legitimacy, at least in part because the Court has been widely viewed as above politics.

We had expressed concern that this might change if the public perceived the Court had merely acted politically in handling the healthcare cases. Indeed, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 50% thought the Court would rule based on “partisan political views.” So the public was initially skeptical about the fairness of the process.

What does today’s opinion tell the public about the fairness of the process the justices followed in reaching their decision? The initial news coverage has predictably focused on two aspects of the Court’s decision: (1) the outcome upholding the Affordable Care Act and (2) that the majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. Indeed, in the big-picture view, which is where public opinion is formed, those are key points. And that means that the Chief Justice—the justice whose very role makes him the face of the Court—will be perceived by many as having decided the case on something other than “partisan political views.” That could certainly reinforce the historic public vision of the Court as an institution that places adherence to the rule of law above politics. In addition, whenever anyone paints the Court in partisan terms, members of the public may think back to the Chief Justice’s key vote in upholding the Affordable Care Act and conclude that the Roberts Court is not simply a political institution making decisions based on policy preferences rather than on the law and evidence.

The Court’s decision confirms our previously expressed view that the Chief Justice indeed had an open mind during oral argument, and that his questions were fair ones to be asked of both sides. In these days of pundits, many commented publicly that it was nearly a foregone conclusion that the Court would find the entire statute unconstitutional—based on what was observed at oral argument. Perhaps this high-profile example that such guesses can be wrong will also be helpful; the public may realize that oral arguments are part of the process of learning about and exploring the issues, not deciding them. An open process in which issues are explored, parties’ positions are better understood, and the Court then retires to consider everything it has heard, fulfills public expectations for procedural fairness.

We’ve only looked briefly at the written opinions at this point. The justices receive mixed grades in terms of being respectful, but—at least in their introductions and conclusions—they have tried to explain basic concepts involving the exercise of government power under the Constitution. But news-media commentary is likely to give prominence to those instances where one or more of the justices indulged in sarcasm and belittled the other side of the decision.

That leads us to wonder whether the justices might yet benefit greatly by writing more for a lay audience than for each other or for constitutional law scholars. When he wrote the draft opinion for Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren set out to write an opinion so short that it would be reprinted by newspapers and read by the public. Warren’s memo to his fellow justices accompanying the draft told his colleagues that the draft had been “prepared on the theory that the opinion[] should be short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” He wanted to make sure that the opinion would be understood and accepted by the public.

Perhaps the Affordable Care Act has so many more moving parts than the concept of segregated schools had that it was necessary for the justices to issue opinions totaling 193 pages to decide the case and explain the decision. Even so, we know that public interest in the healthcare cases was high, and many more citizens would have read the opinion—and gained further appreciation for the Court—had the justices written shorter opinions more tailored toward a lay audience. Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in Brown, which took up only 14 pages in the United States Reports (including the syllabus prepared by the reporter to summarize the opinion) may remain a model of succinctness and clarity that modern courts simply do not approach.

In sum, the combination of a well-publicized oral argument that was fairly handled and allowed issues to be explored and a ruling in which the most prominent justice went against partisan stereotyping may augur well for long-term public support for the Court. Time—and future events—will tell.

Steve Leben, Kevin Burke, David Rottman & Tom Tyler

The Healthcare Ruling: The Public Stands Ready to Judge the Judges   Leave a comment

So we will need to wait until Thursday for the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act. Interest runs high. Today, nearly 100,000 people signed on to a live blog from to see whether the Court had ruled on the healthcare case and, if so, in what way.

We previously considered the healthcare cases from a procedural-fairness viewpoint. We gave the Court a passing grade for procedural fairness at oral argument: the two justices most closely watched, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, asked questions of attorneys both for and against the law, and each tried to explore the issues in an even-handed way. (See our April 3 blog entry.) We also noted that diffuse, long-term support for the Court has usually stood resilient in the face of short-term disagreements over specific cases. (See our April 13 blog entry.)

But there are also reasons for concern—that the Court’s decision in the healthcare cases may prove particularly significant in their impact on long-term public support for the Court as an institution. Gallup checks public approval of the Court before each September, just before the Court begins its new term. Approval in 2011 was down to 46%, down 15% in two years and lower than all but one other reading since 1973. At the same time (Sept. 2011), Gallup reported historically high levels of negativity toward all of the federal government, with 81% dissatisfied, an historic level.

One important factor in maintaining public support for the Court is the public’s perception that their concerns and interests are fairly considered there. But that’s not the expectation as we await the healthcare decision. A Washington Post-ABC News survey in April showed that 50% thought the Court would rule based on “partisan political views,” with only 40% saying it would rule “on the basis of the law” and the remaining 10% undecided.

Public reaction to two past decisions offers some insight into the likely impact of next Thursday’s ruling on public opinion; they suggest caution against over-reading any immediate reaction in public opinion to the healthcare decisions. The first is Kelo v. City of New London, the Court’s 2005 eminent-domain decision. It was coincidentally issued one day before Gallup began a three-day opinion survey about Court approval, and the 42% approval rating (compared to 48% disapproving) is the lowest measurement for Court approval during the history of the poll (1973 to present). But the Court’s approval quickly rebounded—to 48% by the annual survey in September 2005 and back to 60% a year later. The second is Bush v. Gore, the 2000 decision that had obvious political overtones. But the Court’s approval ratings were 62% in September 2000, 59% in January 2001, and 62% in June 2001, showing no ill effects on overall public approval.

Even with these cautionary words, however, we believe the healthcare cases may present a more significant problem—and opportunity—for the Court with respect to maintaining its long-term, diffuse support (what we sometimes call its legitimacy). Interest is high, and public skepticism with its national government is high too.

Polls have also shown that the public wants to see some or all of the law struck down. A New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this month had 41% wanting it struck down altogether and another 27% wanting to keep the law but overturn the individual mandate to buy insurance. But there still are millions of Americans who want the entire law kept in place, and all will be watching to see how their concerns have been taken into account.

The Court could improve its standing if it has reached consensus by at least six justices, which would demonstrate its ability to reach consensus on neutral principles that transcend party affiliation. In addition, to the extent that the Court’s written opinions honestly acknowledge the sincerity of opposing views, while carefully explaining the basis for the decision (or dissent), they will foster the appearance of a respectful institution that takes the people’s concerns seriously. In short, the justices will be viewed as having followed a fair process to reach its decision.

Steve Leben, David Rottman & Kevin Burke