Archive for the ‘Public Opinion’ Tag

The paradox of American policing: Performance without legitimacy   Leave a comment

by Tom Tyler

                Recent events in New York City make it clear that there is widespread and continuing anger over the street stop policies of the NYPD.  This ongoing discontent reflects a broader paradox in American policing: the police have become more effective in reducing the rate of violent crime to historically low levels but their success has not led to higher levels of public trust in the police.  There are lessons from this police experience not only for police commanders but also for judges, court administrators, and others working in the criminal justice system.

Based upon my own research and that of other social scientists we know why this performance without legitimacy paradox is occurring.   Public anger continues because the police have not addressed what actually matters to the public.  My research shows that police legitimacy is based upon how fairly the public thinks the police exercise their authority.  Until the police change their policies and practices to address public concerns over procedural justice, controversies over police practices such as racial profiling, police street stops and the surveillance of Muslim Americans will not end.

Many cities, including New York City are experiencing dramatically lower levels of violent crime.  Despite these gains public trust and confidence in the police is not increasing, nor is the large racial gap in trust and confidence between White and minority Americans closing.  Better performance has not lead to greater public legitimacy.  Why?  Police leaders are failing to take account of public concerns.  Evaluations of policies and practices by police leaders ask if they are effective in preventing crimes.  The question of whether these policies and practices are viewed as legitimate by people in the community is not addressed.  My research findings however tell us that effectiveness is not the key factor that the public considers when reacting to police policies and practices.

What does the public care about?  Research shows that the key issue to members of the public is their evaluation of the fairness of the way the police exercise their authority: i.e. to issues of procedural justice.  More than anything else people are concerned about whether they feel that the police officers to whom they give the authority to maintain order in their communities act using fair procedures.

What does the public mean by fair procedures?  They mean first that when creating policies the police work with the community to identify problems and the strategies that should be used to address them.  When dealing with particular citizens they allow those people to tell their side of the story, to explain their situation, before making decisions.  When implementing the law the police explain their policies and how they are being applied in particular cases in ways that the public can see are neutral and unbiased.

The public also means that the police should treat people fairly.  Fair treatment is respectful and courteous.  It acknowledges people’s rights not to be demeaned, ridiculed or insulted by the police.  And, the police are trustworthy.  They act with integrity, accounting for their actions in ways that show good faith responsiveness to people and their problems.

Why should the police care about this public perspective on policing?  Insensitivity to public concerns has led police departments like the NYPD to turn victory into defeat.  Instead of being congratulated for lowering the rate of violence in New York City, or reducing the rate of unlawful shootings, the police are reviled by an angry population for mistreating people in the community.

And the police lose the benefits of public cooperation.  Studies show that when people view the police as more legitimate they are more willing to defer to police authority; less likely to resist and defy the police; and that complaints against the police go down.  Legitimacy further encourages willing compliance with the law and cooperation with police efforts in their efforts to stop crimes and identify criminals.  When fairly treated people are more willing to work with the police in efforts that join the police and the people in the community in efforts to maintain order by attending community meetings or joining a neighborhood watch.

If officers dealt with people seeking to communicate respect and deliver fairness they would be working not only to prevent crime but to build public support for the police.  And, more broadly legal authorities need to recognize the value of considering their policies and practices from the perspective of public concerns.  That perspective emphasizes that people are “seekers of justice” and evaluate their experiences with the police and courts by evaluating how fairly they experience the actions of the authorities they deal with.

Tom Tyler, Professor of Law and Psychology, Yale University

Posted July 12, 2012 by drottman1 in Policing

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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

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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History Lesson: The Procedural Fairness Legacy of the Affordable Health Care Act   1 comment

There is intense speculation about the potential impact of the Affordable Health Care Act on the US Supreme Court’s standing with the American public. Decades of public opinion polling demonstrates the resiliency of the Court in withstanding case decisions that seriously displease large segments of the public.  The Court appears to command the loyalty of the American people because of the manner in which it reaches decisions, not the specific decisions it reaches.

Will history repeat itself in the case of the Health Care Act?  There are strong reasons for anticipating that the public’s loyalty to the Supreme Court as an institution will prevail, regardless of the case outcome. The partisan tumult associated with Bush v. Gore seemed at first to challenge such an expectation, yet after that case, overall support for the Court quickly reverted to its traditionally high (relative to other federal government institutions) level. In the short term, disenchanted Democratic-leaning Court supporters were instantly replaced with newly enchanted Republican-leaning Court supporters, leaving overall levels of support unchanged; however, even that effect was short-lived.  One month after the decision, over 61 percent of Democrats professed a favorable opinion of the Court and only 29 percent an unfavorable opinion [Pew Research Center]. Support for the Court once again became equally prevalent among Democrats and Republicans alike.

Today’s Supreme Court justices may have reason for concern that history will not repeat itself and that their decision in the Health Care Act case could reduce  diffuse support their institution receives from Democrats (and less certainly from Republicans, who already view the Court as too liberal, if the decision goes in the other direction). “Diffuse support” is a reservoir of good will on which the Court can draw, as opposed to the temporary “specific support” that it might receive based on agreement with a particular decisions.  In procedural fairness terms, diffuse support comes from public perceptions that decisions are being made according to principles of respect, neutrality, participation, and trustworthiness. Things may have changed since 2000. The Court is increasingly being seen in partisan terms. A Washington Post-ABC News survey last Sunday asked a random sample of adults, “Do you think the Supreme Court justices will rule on this case mainly on the basis of the law or mainly on the basis of their partisan political views. Forty percent answered “on the basis of the law” and 50 percent based on “partisan political views,” with another 10 percent undecided. Those responses come at a time in which support for the US Supreme Court has been declining, most likely a manifestation of a general decline of trust in government across the board. The past may therefore be a less certain guide to the consequences of a decision viewed unfavorably by a substantial segment of the public, especially if Democrats see the decision as part of a series of specific disappointments with the Court. Support for the Court cannot in the long-run rest on new supporters from one party replacing former supporters from the other.   

We have no way of predicting whether successive disappointments with specific Court decisions will lead to a decline in its diffuse support among a segment of the population. The historic relationship between the Court and African-Americans suggests, however, that groups who are dependable supporters can become persistent critics. Over time, the high level of support the Court enjoyed from the African-American community during the period of the Warren Court was replaced by atypically low levels of diffuse support. While African-Americans who grew up during the Warren Court era retained their loyalty, subsequent cohorts never developed a similar level of diffuse support. Bush v Gore   also teaches us that one effect of the Health Care Act will be to at least modestly increase public knowledge about how the Supreme Court operates.  People will talk about and think about the manner in which the Court is making its decision. This is both an opportunity and a risk to the justices. If what people learn and come to believe from news reinforces the belief that the Court follows a procedurally fair process, diffuse support for the institution will be enhanced. As Judges Burke and Leben noted in previous posts to this blog, the Court is taking some steps to expose its process to unprecedented scrutiny. That should be a plus. But the risk is real. In his analysis of the response to Bush v. Gore, political scientist Bert Kritzer noted that the Courts refusal to allow television cameras into oral argument may have served “to limit the vehemence of the public reaction to what the Court decides.”

On balance, the smart bet is on the Supreme Court’s continued ability to maintain diffuse support across the political spectrum.  However, demonstrating procedural fairness in the decision and how it is presented will increase the odds of history repeating itself in June 2012 when the decision is announced

David Rottman

Posted April 13, 2012 by drottman1 in Courts, U.S. Supreme Court

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Supreme Court Gets a Passing Grade on Procedural Fairness—So Far   3 comments

In our last blog post, we said that the public attitudes about the judicial system at all levels could be significantly impacted by how well the justices of the United States Supreme Court adhered during oral argument to the elements of procedural fairness—voice, neutrality, respect, and trustworthy authorities. So how did the justices do? It’s an important question: This case has the potential to increase the sense of legitimacy in judicial decisionmaking, and it also has the potential to be a train wreck.  Despite the importance of oral arguments, whether one of those two extremes will occur will be very dependent upon the final written opinion.  But the oral arguments certainly set the stage for how people will view the process by which this case is decided.

On the whole, the justices performed reasonably well during oral arguments. Most asked good questions that seemed to be honest attempts to explore the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s positions. And this was certainly the case for the two justices whose role in the oral arguments probably mattered the most in public perception:  Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy—Roberts because as chief justice he runs the show, and Kennedy because he is widely seen as the swing justice these days when the court is closely divided.

Both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy asked questions of attorneys both for and against the Affordable Care Act. And both tried to explore the issues in an even-handed way. For example, while Roberts asked tough questions of the government’s lawyer regarding the individual mandate, he also interrupted one of the attorneys arguing the other side to have him respond to what Roberts perceived as the government’s main point. Kennedy openly discussed “concerns” he had regarding each side’s position. To opponents of the law, Kennedy asked that they address his “concern in the case” that the young person who chooses to be uninsured is “very close to affecting” insurance rates for others “in a way that is not true in other industries.” Kennedy also asked detailed questions of the government, which based part of its defense on the principle that the government had exercised its taxing power as authority for the mandate for each individual to buy health insurance. Kennedy asked them to assume that the government indeed could have used its taxing power and directly created a single-payer national health plan. He then said that “it can be argued that this is what the government is doing; [the government] ought to be honest about the power it’s using and use the correct power,” to which the government’s attorney provided a response.

Chief Justice Roberts acted evenhandedly in presiding over the arguments. Although the justices and frequent court-watchers may be used to it, the public was no doubt surprised by how often justices interrupted one another—and also interrupted attorneys while the attorney was still responding to another justice’s question. Roberts frequently asked attorneys to return to the question that had initially been asked by another justice but not fully answered, ensuring that the advocates had a fair chance to respond to the important questions that the justices had posed to them. From a fairness standpoint, however, it would be much better if justices didn’t interrupt each other so frequently, and if they allowed attorneys to finish their answers to other justices’ questions.

Media accounts of the arguments have tended to focus on attempts to predict the outcome based upon questions asked or attitudes exhibited during oral argument. Arguments from judges who have carefully studied the briefs often will produce some questions that express tentative positions, which  is to be expected. While that may be the case, most of the questions still were usually fair ones that gave the attorneys a chance to respond to what the justices saw as weaknesses in their positions. Appellate advocates appreciate having the chance to address the points that are on the minds of the justices, and the justices generally gave them that chance.

Experienced lawyers—and judges—will tell you to be cautious about reading too much into a judge’s questions and comments during oral argument. Sometimes a judge will ask questions to confirm a tentative position the judge has arrived at based on the briefs. Sometimes a judge is aware of concerns a colleague has and will use the oral argument to garner support for a majority opinion. Sometimes a judge really has reached an immovable position. Two respected federal appellate judges once kept track—for 10 months—of how often oral argument had changed their minds in a case; one judge said it had 31 percent of the time and the other 17 percent. The confidence of pundits notwithstanding, it’s not always possible to tell how a case will come out based on the oral argument.

Only one justice simply seemed tone-deaf at times to the principles of procedural fairness:  Justice Antonin Scalia. From a fairness standpoint, the public wants to perceive that the justices are considering the issues based on neutral legal principles, not in any political way. Yet Justice Scalia was the only one to introduce partisan politics directly into the discussion.

During the argument about whether the Medicaid provisions were unconstitutionally coercive on the states, attorney Paul D. Clement was explaining that 26 states thought it was a bad deal for them. Scalia interrupted and framed the issue as a purely political one:  “Mr. Clement, I didn’t take the time to figure this out, but maybe you did. Is there any chance that all 26 States opposing it have Republican governors, and all of the States supporting it have Democratic governors? Is that possible?” Clement replied, “There’s a correlation, Justice Scalia.” The transcript shows that Scalia then said, “Yes,” followed by laughter from the audience. Scalia left it there, and another justice asked an unrelated question.

No one—Scalia, Clement, or anyone else—suggested how the party affiliation of the governors could relate to the legal issue being discussed. As far as we can tell, Scalia injected partisan politics directly into the discussion at this point solely to lead to a laugh line.  Humor does have a place in arguments before judges.  But a judge interjecting humor should be careful. Justice Scalia’s laugh line may well have come at a cost, as it undermined what we presume is the court’s desired perception that it decides case like this based on neutral legal principles, without consideration of partisan political overtones.

Justice Scalia made at least one other potentially questionable comment.  In an argument of this length, people—and justices are people—do make mistakes, but this mistake was profound and went to undermining the trust people need to have about judges. When discussing whether the entire law should be struck down if the court strikes down the individual mandate, Justice Scalia made a perjorative reference to a provision that was contained in the Affordable Care Act but ultimately did not become law:  “[I]f we struck down nothing in this legislation but the—what’s it called, the Cornhusker kickback . . . [i]t was the means of getting the last necessary vote in the Senate. And you are telling us that the whole statute would fall because the Cornhusker kickback is bad. That can’t be right.” Using the term “kickback” in referring to a provision that provided benefits to one state, Nebraska, in exchange for the vote of its senator sounds more like a political attack ad than the sort of question a neutral judge would ask. It’s odd that Justice Scalia would ask such a question because his consistent position is that in interpreting statutes, legislative-history materials (like Congressional debate transcripts) should not be consulted, let alone the sort of media coverage that led to public discussion of the Nebraska provision. And while the provision Scalia refers to as the “Cornhusker kickback” was in the Affordable Care Act, another bill repealed it before it took effect. So the use of this example seems gratuitously partisan, even if that was not the intention.

Justice Scalia made one other comment that runs contrary to the image the public wants for its Supreme Court justices, and once again he ran aground by attempting to inject humor into the proceedings. When the attorneys were arguing about whether some of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act could remain in effect if the individual-mandate provision is struck down, Scalia invoked the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment while expressing astonishment that the attorney had suggested justices review the full statute to determine what could remain in effect:  “[W]hat happened to the Eighth Amendment? You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages?” The transcript shows laughter in response. But Scalia ended the exchange with a more serious suggestion that it really was unfair to ask a Supreme Court justice to read the Affordable Care Act in full:  “Is this not totally unrealistic? That we’re going to go through this enormous bill item by item and decide each one?”

Other justices suggested that such a review wasn’t needed, anyway, based on the nuances of past Supreme Court cases on how to decide whether to strike down an entire statute or only parts of it. But a member of the public listening to the argument could easily have been left with the impression that Justice Scalia—a lifetime appointee to the nation’s highest court—wasn’t willing to take the time to read the full statute passed by Congress to make his decision. The public wants judges who will take all the time needed to make a good decision on an important issue, and the public certainly regards the issues in play here as important ones.

It’s too early to fully evaluate the court’s handling of these cases from a procedural-fairness standpoint. The written opinion or opinions of the justices are likely to have a much more profound impact on how the American people view judicial decisionmaking than the oral arguments. Ideally, the opinion would be joined by more than five justices, which itself would suggest that the justices reached consensus on neutral principles that transcend party affiliation. But whatever the vote margin, opinions that honestly acknowledge the sincerity of opposing views while carefully explaining the basis for the decision (or dissent) will help the nation to respect the judicial process. Anything less could cause lasting damage.

Steve Leben and Kevin Burke

Focused on Fairness: The Public Turns Its Attention to the U.S. Supreme Court   2 comments

Beginning Monday, March 26, 2012, public attention will focus on the United States Supreme Court in a way that’s essentially unprecedented. Sure, there have been many important cases in the Court’s history, but few have had timing like this. It’s a Presidential-election year. The health-care cases divide the country, even if the precise legal issues are not yet well understood by the public. And there are lots of pundits poised to comment, few of whom will actually be objective.

In this environment, the Court will hold three days of oral arguments on issues surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—the 2,400-page law called Obamacare by its detractors and the Affordable Care Act by its supporters. The nation’s 24-hour news cycle will be focused like a laser beam on the Court, but there will be no television cameras, no live radio broadcast, and no blogging, twitter, or other reporting from the courtroom.

Even so, what the public perceives about whether the justices gave a fair hearing to both sides may have a lasting impact on public attitudes toward the judicial system at all levels. What will the public be looking for? And is the Court equipped to provide it?

Based on decades of research, the public will be looking for the elements of procedural fairness—voice, neutrality, respect, and trustworthy authorities. To be sure, the public will also make judgments about the merits of this case. But there is a lot more at stake: the legitimacy of the judicial process is also being tested.

To pass that test with the public, the Supreme Court needs to conduct the argument with a keen eye on the goal of demonstrating that courts decide issues in a way different than the political debates of a presidential campaign or the legislative process. Among other things, to achieve procedural fairness, the justices will need to let attorneys actually make some points without being interrupted, to appear willing to listen (better yet, actually be willing to listen), and to avoid arguing from a clearly predetermined position.

The normal case in the U.S. Supreme Court gets one hour for oral argument. This case is getting five and one-half hours spread out over three days. Allowing that extra time was wise from many perspectives. First, justices who want to explore the issues along with the advocates will have the time to do so, rather than feeling the need to quickly stake out a position and argue for it in an attempt to persuade colleagues in advance of the justices’ private case conference where decisions are made. Second, media coverage will emphasize the extent of time devoted to hearing argument in the case, said to be unprecedented in the modern era. Third, the media will be able to explain each of the major issues during the time slot in which argument is being made.

But even with ample time, the attitudes demonstrated by the justices will frame perceptions of their fairness. Senator John McCain attended the oral argument on the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill that he had sponsored. When the Court ultimately ruled in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) that the government could not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections, Sen. McCain spoke in an interview about the attitudes he had observed during oral argument:

“I was not surprised at the Supreme Court decision. I went over there to observe the oral arguments. It was clear that Justice Roberts, Alito, and Scalia, by their very skeptical and even sarcastic comments, were very much opposed to [the law.].” (CBS, Face the Nation, Jan. 24, 2010.)

Sen. McCain has certainly been around the block and heard harsh attacks. Yet he remembered several months after oral argument that there had been “very skeptical and even sarcastic comments” made by several justices.

Even though the Court refused C-SPAN’s request to televise the hearings, the Court will expedite release of transcripts and audiotapes from its normal practice, in which tapes aren’t released until the end of the week. This time, tapes and transcripts will be posted on the Court’s website as soon as they are available; the Court’s public-information office says that the morning session should be available by 2 p.m. each day and that the afternoon session on Wednesday, March 28 (the only afternoon session), should be available by 4 p.m. that day.

This means that the public will be able to hear—the same day—the tone used by justices in asking questions or, for some justices, making arguments. The admonition given recently in this blog by Minnesota appellate judge Francis J. Connolly is one that members of the U.S. Supreme Court should pay heed to next week: “We need to remember that we are not cross-examining a hostile witness but rather probing an attorney’s argument.”

Because of the media attention that will be focused on the U.S. Supreme Court next week, this will be a seminal moment for public perceptions of the justice system. The justices can do a great service to the country by demonstrating procedural fairness throughout the arguments.

Steve Leben and Kevin Burke

[For background about the Supreme Court’s proceedings on the health-care law, and for links to transcripts and audiotapes as they are released, go to SCOTUSblog.]