How Low Public Trust Threatens the Legitimacy of Court Decisions   Leave a comment

Trust is an essential component of procedural fairness, which, in turn, has been shown to be a key source of legitimacy for decision-makers. All public institutions now face serious skepticism from the public about their trustworthiness. However, a trust  deficit – and the resulting lack of legitimacy – are of particular threat to the judiciary. Legitimacy is essential if courts are to be respected and, indeed, if court orders are to be obeyed. Simply put, failure to maintain and enhance the legitimacy of court decisions imperils the judiciary as an institution and the vital role assigned to the judiciary in our Constitutional tradition.

The threat is real. Today, 75% of the American public thinks judges’ decisions are, to a moderate to significant extent, influenced by their political or personal philosophy. Of course, judges have a range of philosophical views and exercise discretion, so some differences of opinion among judges are to be expected. But 75% of the American public also believes  judges’ decisions are, to a moderate to significant extent, influenced by their desire to be appointed to a higher court.

Two recent articles explain the potentially grave implications.

First,  Politico recently published a contribution by law professors Charles Geyh and Stephen Gillers advocating for a bill to make the Supreme Court adopt a code of ethics. They argue:

[I]t would be a mistake for the Court to view the [ethics] bill as a challenge to its power. It is rather an invitation. No rule is thrust on the justices. Under the … bill, the justices are asked to start with the code governing other federal judges, but are then free to make ‘any amendments or modifications’ they deem ‘appropriate.’ A response that says, in effect, ‘We won’t do it because you can’t make us’ will hurt the court and the rule of law.

Second, Linda Greenhouse, a regular commentator on the New York Times Blog “Opinionator,” recently wrote this post about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court entitled Too Much Work?. Greenhouse writes:

As Charlie Savage reported in The Times last month, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has used that authority to name Republican-appointed judges to 10 of the court’s 11 seats. (While Republicans in Congress accuse President Obama of trying to “pack” the federal appeals court in Washington simply by filling its vacant seats, they have expressed no such concern over the fact that the chief justice has over-weighted the surveillance court with Republican judges to a considerably greater degree than either of the two other Republican-appointed chief justices who have served since the court’s creation in 1978.)

What do these two pieces mean for judges? Both articles highlight how the judiciary itself, if not careful, can contribute to the erosion of public trust in our decisions. To be sure, the erosion of the legitimacy of judicial decisions is not entirely the fault of the Supreme Court, nor of judges in general.  The media, for example, often refers to which President appointed a judge as a shorthand way to explain a decision.  But that is, in part, why Ms. Greenhouse’s piece is important. The Chief Justice is recognized as a brilliant man. He and every other judge in the United States know the inevitable shorthand the media will use to describe judges and to explain their decisions. And so the Chief Justice, the members of the United States Supreme Court, indeed every judge in this country needs to be particularly sensitive to what we are doing that might either advance trust in courts or contribute to the erosion of the legitimacy of our courts. The bottom line is: Appearances make a difference. There will be decisions by judges at every level of court that test the public’s trust in our wisdom. It is therefore imperative that judges act in a manner that builds a reservoir of goodwill so that people will stand by courts when a decision is made with which they disagree. There may have been an era when trust in the wisdom and impartiality of judicial decisions could be taken as a given. But if there was such an era, we no longer live in it. Trust and legitimacy today must be earned.

Kevin Burke

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