Naming Names: The Impact of Supreme Court Opinion Attribution on Citizen Assessment of Policy Outcomes

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Naming Names: The Impact of Supreme Court
Opinion Attribution on Citizen Assessment of
Policy Outcomes
Scott S. Boddery Laura P. Moyer
Jeff Yates
The manner in which political institutions convey their policy outcomes can
have important implications for how the public views institutions’ policy deci-
sions. This paper explores whether the way in which the U.S. Supreme
Court communicates its policy decrees affects how favorably members of the
public assess its decisions. Specifically, we investigate whether attributing a
decision to the nation’s High Court or to an individual justice influences the
public’s agreement with the Court’s rulings. Using an experimental design,
we find that when a Supreme Court outcome is ascribed to the institution as
a whole, rather than to a particular justice, people are more apt to agree
with the policy decision. We also find that identifying the gender of the opin-
ion author affects public agreement under certain conditions. Our findings
have important implications for how public support for institutional policy-
making operates, as well as the dynamics of how the Supreme Court man-
ages to accumulate and maintain public goodwill.
The manner in which institutions convey policy choices to the
rest of the world has long interested students of politics and public
policy and represents a core concern of governance dynamics
(e.g., Druckman 2001; Easton 1965; Estlund 2007; Mondak 1992).
In the case of the U.S. Supreme Court, the American convention
of attributing court decisions to justices in signed opinions involves
a careful balancing of important and sometimes competing con-
cerns, including judicial independence, accountability, and how the
opinions will be perceived by external political actors and the pub-
lic. Legal scholars have advanced strong opinions on whether the
U.S. Supreme Court’s approach to transmitting its case decisions is
optimal or might be better handled in another manner. Fiss (1983)
argues that the current method of individually signed majority
opinions best serves the Court’s institutional legitimacy while also
We are grateful to Jamie Druckman, Susan Haire, Andrew O’Geen, Steven Brooke,
David Buckley, Jamie Carson, Jim Gibson, and the reviewers and editors of Law & Society
Review for their helpful critiques on earlier drafts of this article.
Please direct all correspondence to Scott S. Boddery, Gettysburg College, Depart-
ment of Political Science, 300 N. Washington St., Gettysburg, PA 17325; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 53, Number 2 (2019): 353–385
©2019 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
promoting justices’ accountability for their decisions. On the other
hand, some suggest that the Court’s institutional credibility and
robustness would be better served through the use of anonymous
opinions—similar to the practice employed in civil law countries
(Bozzo 2015; Markham 2006).
In this paper, we address a puzzle that persists regarding how
the U.S. High Court fosters and preserves legitimacy and support
among the public: can the manner in which the Court communi-
cates its policy decrees affect whether members of the public react
favorably to its legal decisions? Specifically, we are interested in
whether citizens’ agreement with a decision by the Court is affected
by source cues tied to the identity of the majority opinion author.
We argue that majority opinions attributed to the U.S. Supreme
Court as a whole should enjoy higher levels of agreement than
those attributed to particular justices because the Court-attributed
opinions will connote neutrality, credibility, and institutional legiti-
macy (Bartels and Mutz 2009; Gibson et al. 2014; Hoekstra 1995).
Using an experimental design with approximately 1200 respon-
dents, we find support for our primary thesis that legal decisions
attributed to the U.S. Supreme Court—as opposed to a specific
justice—enjoy higher levels of agreement. Our results also confirm
that this relationship is conditioned on citizens’ ideological identity.
In extended analyses, we find that environmental culturalinfluences
help determinewhether and how the gender of theattributed justice
has an impact on citizen agreement with U.S. Supreme Court
For the U.S. Supreme Court, these considerations are espe-
cially significant given that the Court lacks the means possessed by
Congress or the executive to enforce and implement its judgments.
The Court is an unusually vulnerable policy-making institution that
relies on public support to maintain its policy viability and protect
it from institutional encroachment (e.g., Caldeira 1986). As Gibson
(2012, 2015) and others have noted, “legitimacy is for losers.” In
other words, a person’s assessment of the legitimacy of an institu-
tion and the legitimacy of its policy decisions quite often turns on
whether they agree with them. The U.S. Supreme Court typically
only has to draw from its “reservoir of good will” when citizens dis-
agree with its verdicts. Hence, making policy decisions in a manner
that is more palatable to a wider portion of the public, all else being
equal, goes a long way toward an institution being able to maintain
long-term diffuse support from the public (i.e., legitimacy) and
enjoy its governing benefits (2015: 82–84).
The paper proceeds as follows. Section 1 lays out the theoreti-
cal framework for understanding agreement with U.S. Supreme
Court decisions, and Section 2 describes our experimental design.
In Section 3, we discuss the results from our main models and
354 Impact of Opinion Assignment on Decision Assessments
then in Section 5 test whether our findings on justice attribution
are affected by the gender of the opinion author. In the final
section of our paper, we discuss the implications of our findings
for American politics and legal policymaking and suggest poten-
tial paths for future research on this subject.
Theoretical Framework
Agreement and Supreme Court Decisions
Because the U.S. Supreme Court is dependent on public sup-
port to maintain its legitimacy and to ensure the implementation
of its rulings, scholars have focused a great deal of their attention
on its public perception (Gibson et al. 2003; Gibson and Caldeira
1992; Scheb and Lyons 2000). Notable in this literature is the con-
clusion that the American High Court benefits from a robust sense
of legitimacy not enjoyed by other high courts (Gibson et al. 1998)
and that this diffuse support does not turn on affection for its deci-
sions (Gibson and Caldeira 2009). In recent years, others have
argued that assessments of legitimacy are at least in part a function
of ideological agreement with the Court, with the implication being
that the U.S. Supreme Court’s legitimacy may not be so stable after
all (Bartels and Johnston 2013; Christenson and Glick 2015; but
see Gibson and Nelson 2015). Central to this debate is the question
of how the public actually processes output from the Court
(Johnston et al. 2014). Given that legitimacy is most important for
those who do not agree with the Court’s decisions (Gibson 2012;
Gibson et al. 2014) and can impact implementation (Canon and
Johnson 1984), it becomes important to understand what factors
influence public agreement with the specific decisions of the Court.
While considerably less attention has been paid to studying
citizens’ agreement with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions than
citizens’ perceptions of the legitimacy of such decisions, the existing
research points to the importance of the content of Court opinions
(Baas and Thomas 1984; Mondak 1994; Zink et al. 2009), as well as
attributes of the Court (Boddery and Yates 2014; Zink et al. 2009)
and the framing of the decision by the media (Mondak 1994; Zilis
2015). One especially promising avenue for unpacking agreement
dynamics focuses on the use of source cues as heuristics in public
opinion about the U.S. Supreme Court. Because U.S. Supreme
Court rulingsare often complicated and can be difficult for a lay per-
son or even journalists (Slotnickand Segal 1994) to understand easily,
relying on heuristics can ease the cognitiveburden for those trying to
understandand evaluate the Court’sdecision in a case. Such heuristic
cue-following allows people to make quick assessments on complex
matters in order tohelp make sense of the world around them in an
Boddery, Moyer, & Yates 355

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