Author Summary by Stephen P. Nicholson & Thomas G. Hansford
Are the Supreme Court’s decisions the product of partisan politics or impartial, legal considerations? The answer to this question has important implications for public acceptance of Supreme Court decisions. If the Court is viewed as an impartial, legalistic institution, it may confer legitimacy on its decisions in a way that the political branches of government cannot. Alternatively, if the public views the Court as a partisan institution, its decisions should be received by the public in much the same was as the public responds to decisions made by Congress and the presidency. The partisan face of the Supreme Court’s decisions is especially relevant today since the partisan and ideological views of the Supreme Court justices are now perfectly in sync.
To study this question, we conducted a survey experiment where we asked people about whether they accepted a recent Supreme Court decision. We asked about four different cases on the topics of handguns, gays and lesbians in religious clubs, juvenile sentencing, and campaign finance reform. Our strategy was to vary the image of the Supreme Court—partisan or legal—to see how the different depictions of the Court’s behavior affected public acceptance of its decisions and whether one or the other prevails when presented simultaneously. In the experiment, respondents were randomly assigned to receive different types of information about the decision. For example, to look at whether the imprimatur of the Supreme Court increased acceptance of it decisions we had respondents assigned to different conditions where the decision was attributed to the Court while other conditions attributed the decision to the government or made no source attribution at all. To capture the political face of the Court, we had other conditions that included party cues where the decision was attributed to either a Democratic or Republican-appointed majority of justices.
Our results indicate that public opinion is responsive to partisan depictions of Supreme Court decisions. Although overall levels of public acceptance do not change in response to whether the decision was the product of a Republican or Democratic majority on the Court, opinion often divides along party lines. Democratic identifiers, for example, are more likely to accept a decision handed down by a Democratic majority on the Court whereas that same information diminishes acceptance among Republican identifiers.
However, we found that the effect of information about partisan decision making on the Supreme Court varies according to the amount of pre-existing partisan disagreement on an issue. The smaller the pre-existing gap between Democratic and Republican identifiers on an issue, e.g., the less partisan polarized, the more likely it was that partisans would be affected by information about whether a Democratic or Republican majority on the Court was responsible for a decision. On the other hand, the greater the pre-existing partisan polarization, the smaller the effect that information had on acceptance of decisions. For the cases included in our study, this meant that the effect of party cues was larger on the issue of juvenile sentencing compared to gays and lesbians in religious clubs.
Although the public appears to be responsive to partisan images of the Court, we do not find consistent results for the argument that the imprimatur of the Supreme Court confers legitimacy on its decisions. Rather, in many instances, the Supreme Court does not appear to confer legitimacy on its decisions above simply attributing the decision to “the government” or making no source attribution at all. Furthermore, the effect of depicting the Court as a partisan decision maker is not attenuated when told that it is the Court rather than “the government” making the decision. In other words, party cues matter just as much when people evaluate Court decisions as they do when evaluating decisions attributed elsewhere.
The results of our study have important implications for understanding public perceptions of the Supreme Court. In light of our findings, the Supreme Court’s uniqueness in the American political system is perhaps overstated, at least in terms of its ability to generate acceptance of its decisions or overcome partisan reactions.
About the Authors: Stephen P. Nicholson and Thomas G. Hansford are Associate Professors of Political Science at UC Merced. The article “Partisans in Robes: Party Cues and Public Acceptance of Supreme Court Decisions” appeared in the July 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.