The Influence of Public Sentiment on Supreme Court Opinion Clarity

Published date01 September 2016
Date01 September 2016
The Influence of Public Sentiment on Supreme
Court Opinion Clarity
Ryan C. Black Ryan J. Owens
Justin Wedeking Patrick C. Wohlfarth
We examine whether public opinion leads Supreme Court justices to alter the
content of their opinions. We argue that when justices anticipate public oppo-
sition to their decisions, they write clearer opinions. We develop a novel mea-
sure of opinion clarity based on multifaceted textual readability scores, which
we validate using human raters. We examine an aggregate time series analysis
of the influence of public mood on opinion clarity and an individual-level
sample of Supreme Court cases paired with issue-specific public opinion polls.
The empirical results from both models show that justices write clearer opin-
ions when their rulings contradict popular sentiment. These results suggest
public opinion influences the Court, and suggest that future scholarship
should analyze how public opinion influences the written content of decision
makers’ policies.
When the Supreme Court makes a decision contrary to pub-
lic opinion, justices are likely to worry the Court will lose public
support. So, what are justices to do? One option, of course, is to
move the policy content of the opinion closer to public sentiment.
Yet, we know that justices seek, among other things, ideological
goals (Epstein and Knight 1998) and would prefer to effectuate
them when feasible. Another option, then, is to seek their policy
goals while mitigating the possible loss of public support. It is on
this perspective we focus. We argue that justices, when they rule
contrary to public opinion, will vary the clarity of majority opin-
ions in an effort to maintain public support as best they can.
While the Court has a deep reservoir of diffuse support, frequent
counter-majoritarian decisions could leave it at risk (Gibson et al.
2003: 365). By writing a clear opinion when ruling against public
sentiment, justices can better inform the public why they so
Wethank Thomas Marshall for sharing his publicopinion poll data and workshop partic-
ipants at the Universityof Maryland, College Park for helpful feedback. We are responsible
for all interpretationsand errors.
Please directall correspondence to Ryan Owens, Departmentof Political Science, Univer-
sity of Wisconsin,Madison, WI 53706; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 50, Number 3 (2016)
C2016 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
decided, and thereby manage any immediate loss of support they
might suffer—or, think they might suffer (see, e.g., Nelson, N.d.).
We develop a measure of opinion clarity based on automated
textual readability scores that we validate using human raters.
Our results show public opinion strongly influences the content
of Court opinions. Importantly, we analyze both macro- and case-
level public opinion, providing broad-based support for our find-
ings. In one approach, we compile an aggregate data set that
includes Court decisions from 1952 to 2011, and execute a time
series analysis that scrutinizes opinion clarity as a function of
yearly changes in public mood. In a second approach, we rely on
issue-specific public opinion polls that directly relate to individual
Supreme Court cases (Marshall 1989, 2008). Using these micro-
level data, we analyze the content of specific majority opinions to
determine how public opinion influences Supreme Court opinion
clarity. Both empirical analyses offer considerable support for our
argument that justices write clearer opinions when they deviate
from public sentiment. What is more, our measure of opinion
clarity is one scholars who study other institutions could employ.
These findings are important for a number of reasons. First,
it is the content of the Supreme Court’s opinions that influence
society’s behavior. Actors within society look to those opinions to
determine whether they can engage in particular behaviors
(Spriggs and Hansford 2001). “[S]cholars, practitioners, lower
court judges, bureaucrats, and the public closely analyze judicial
opinions, dissecting their content in an endeavor to understand
the doctrinal development of the law” (Corley et al. 2011: 31).
People must understand the content of opinions and, as such,
scholars should understand the factors that influence those opin-
ions. Our results speak to how the Court crafts the content of
those opinions.
Second, the results address the Court as one institution in a
broader political system where justices know they do not neces-
sarily have the last word. That is, our approach shows how the
Court is tied into a larger network of actors and audiences in the
American political and legal system (Baum 2006). Rather than
focus on how justices influence others, we show how others (i.e.,
the public) can influence justices. At the same time, knowing justi-
ces intentionally alter the language of their opinions to overcome
audience-based obstacles tells us something that speaks to
broader normative debates about democratic control. Justices
appear to do what they can to overcome obstacles from public
opinion. So, while public opinion seems to influence their behav-
ior, justices appear able to circumvent the constraints of public
opinion by tailoring their messages. For those interested in
704 Public Sentiment and Opinion Clarity

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