While there exists a deep research literature examining public attitudes and perceptions of police, citizens’ views of the courts have been subjected to relatively little empirical scrutiny. Moreover, the studies that have been conducted have usually limited their focus to the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite the prominent role played by local courts in the justice system, research investigating public perceptions of local courts is scarce.
Substantive Justice and the U.S. Supreme Court
How would you describe judicial fairness?
Dr. Myrstol invites readers to share their thoughts on public perceptions of judicial fairness. Readers can contact him via email at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @bmyrstol.
As the “court of last resort” in the United States, the Supreme Court acts as the ultimate arbiter when it comes to issues of both procedural and substantive federal law. However, it is the Court’s authority to decide substantive legal issues—that is, the body of rules governing the rights and obligations of individuals and collective bodies—that garners the public’s attention and provides its work with exceptional political and legal salience distinct from that of local courts. Research shows that citizens’ opinions of the Court are shaped almost exclusively by its decisions on substantive legal issues (e.g., the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, the right of an individual to possess a firearm, the ability of the federal government to require individuals to purchase health insurance), rather than the processes and procedures it uses to arrive at its decisions. Public opinion of the Court is primarily shaped by concerns of what we might term substantive justice.
Studies of the factors shaping public perceptions of the Supreme Court reveal a close correspondence between individuals’ personal views on an issue and the Court’s majority opinions pertaining to it. When the Court’s rulings are consistent with people’s opinions, they are more likely to express a favorable view of the Court. Conversely, when the Court renders an opinion that is at odds with personally held points of view, citizens are less likely to view the Court favorably. Notably, however, research also suggests that public attitudes toward the Court are resistant to rapid modification; no single holding is likely to produce significant change in public perceptions of the Court. Dramatic shifts in attitudes typically (though not always) require an accumulation of contrary Court decisions over time.
Procedural Justice and Local Courts
By contrast, substantive justice concerns are believed to play a less prominent role in shaping public perceptions of local courts. Instead, procedural justice concerns are thought to exert more influence. Procedural justice refers to the perceived fairness of the processes and procedures legal authorities use to make decisions, and it consists of three interrelated elements: (a) motive-based trust (benevolence), (b) quality of decisions (neutrality), and (c) quality of treatment (respect).
Procedural justice has received a great deal of attention in recent years because of mounting evidence that legal authorities—including judges—can encourage voluntary acceptance (as opposed to coerced compliance) with their decisions and directives if they behave in a manner that is perceived as fair. When the conduct of judges is perceived by citizens to be in accordance with prevailing standards of fairness, and when citizens are confident that judges’ motives for action are trustworthy, people are more willing to consent and defer to legal authority. Research also shows that, in addition to encouraging voluntary compliance with legal directives, judicial conduct that is perceived to be procedurally just enhances the stature and overall legitimacy of courts in the eyes of the public.
The importance of procedural justice concerns in shaping public perceptions of local courts is likely due to proximity: the general public is much closer, both geographically and legally, to local courts than they are to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only is the Court’s physical location in Washington, D.C., it is the highest appellate court in the country. In order for a case to come before the U.S. Supreme Court (in all but the most exceptional cases), it must first be adjudicated in a trial court, wend its way through lower appellate courts, and finally be accepted for review by the Court. Typically, the legal road it must follow is a long one.
Local courts, on the other hand, are in close proximity to citizens. They are located where people live, and they provide a venue in which citizens can directly interact with the court, either through observation or participation. In contrast to appellate courts, which are limited to reviews of the decisions rendered by lower courts, local courts are courts of original jurisdiction, or, as they are more commonly known, trial courts. As courts of original jurisdiction, local courts are where cases are initially heard and decided. Whether a matter is a civil or criminal issue, local courts are tasked with determining findings of fact and issuing conclusions of law (that is, applying federal, state, and/or local law to the facts presented).
This article focuses on a specific dimension of public perceptions of local courts: citizens’ impressions of judicial fairness in criminal courts. We focus on public perceptions of judicial fairness because it is judges who preside over the proceedings of local courts. The courtroom is the domain of judges, and within that context they appear to exert near-total control over both content and procedure, and thus public perceptions of local courts have their foundation in people’s experiences with, and impressions of, judges.
Data and Methods
The data presented here come from the most recent iteration of the Anchorage Community Survey (ACS), which was conducted during the summer and fall of 2009. The ACS used a mixed-mode methodology, which provided respondents the choice of completing a hard-copy version of the questionnaire and returning it in a pre-addressed, postage-paid envelope, or completing the questionnaire over the Internet via a secure website. In total, 4,702 households were included in the sample. Of these, 560 were deemed ineligible, thereby reducing the size of the sample to 4,142. A total of 2,080 questionnaires were completed for a response rate of 50.3 percent. For the analyses presented below cases were removed if a respondent did not report their age or if the respondent’s reported age was less than 18 years (n=139), resulting in a final sample of 1,941 adult respondents. Statistical weighting procedures were used to correct for non-response, unequal probability of selection, and non-coverage.
Survey respondents were asked to provide information on a wide variety of topics including: their assessment of the quality of life in Anchorage neighborhoods, their levels of social connectedness and civic engagement, their experiences with racism, their perceptions of crime and social disorder, their evaluation of local governmental services, their views of the criminal justice system, as well as household and demographic characteristics.
Anchorage Residents’ Perceptions of Judicial Fairness
Within the criminal justice section of the questionnaire, each respondent was asked to rate members of the criminal court community (judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police) with respect to treating people fairly. Response categories for this measure were: poor, fair, good, excellent, and don’t know.
Figure 1 presents Anchorage adults’ ratings of judicial fairness. From left to right, the columns represent the percentage of Anchorage adults rating the fairness of criminal court judges as poor, fair, good, or excellent. The “whiskers” superimposed on each column represent the margin of error for each estimate, which range from ± 2.7% for fair to ± 3.7% for good. Fully two-thirds (66.9%; ± 3.6%) of Anchorage adults indicated that criminal court judges do a good or excellent job when it comes to treating people fairly.
In order to put these findings in perspective, we also estimated Anchorage adults’ ratings of the other members of the criminal court community: prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the police. Figure 2 presents the results for each group of criminal justice actors side-by-side. Each column represents the percentage of Anchorage adults who rated the fairness of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the police as “good” or “excellent.” The dark gray column depicts the results for criminal court judges; the three light gray bars represent the results for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the police. The most notable feature of the data presented in Figure 2 is the uniformity of response. Overall, Anchorage adults provided equally favorable fairness ratings for all four groups. (Although there are observable differences in each group’s ratings, none of these differences was found to be statistically significant.)
Perceptions of Judicial Fairness: Who? or What?
What factors influence public perceptions of judicial fairness? Which of the many factors that might have an impact on people’s views of criminal court judges actually do? We explore these questions from two vantage points: respondents’ demographic characteristics (who they are), and the nature of their interactions with judges and other criminal justice actors (what they have experienced).
Figure 3 presents Anchorage adults’ perceptions of judicial fairness according to their age, their racial group membership, and their gender. Each bar in Figure 3 depicts the percentage of Anchorage adults within each response category rating the fairness of criminal court judges as good or excellent. Results are presented for six age groups (18–24, 25–34, 35–44, 45–54, 55–64, and 65 years and older), five race/ethnic groups (Alaska Native/American Indian, Asian, Black/African American, White/Caucasian, and All Other), and two gender groups (males and females).
With respect to age, those on each end of the age continuum provided the most favorable assessments, while those in the middle of the age distribution were the most critical of judicial fairness. Despite this variability in Anchorage adults’ ratings of judicial fairness, none of these between-group differences were large enough to conclude that they were the result of anything other than random variability (p=.830). Similarly, there was observable variation in perceptions of judicial fairness among racial groups, but these differences were not statistically significant (p=.142). The last two columns in Figure 3 compare the judicial fairness ratings of men and women. An estimated 72 percent of adult women rated criminal court judges as good or excellent with respect to treating people fairly. Adult men, on the other hand, tended to offer lower judicial fairness ratings (61.7% good or excellent). In contrast to the results presented for age and racial group membership, these differences were statistically significant (p=.003).
Based on these results, it appears that the answer to the question Are demographic characteristics associated with perceptions of judicial fairness? is a qualified “maybe.” Our results suggest that age and racial group membership are not associated with Anchorage adults’ ratings of judicial fairness, while gender may influence them. While we do find a significant association between gender and ratings of judicial fairness at the bivariate level, it is possible that once other factors (for example, the nature of an individual’s experiences with judges or other criminal justice actors, see below) are taken into account this relationship will dissolve. Further study using more advanced statistical methods is necessary before any firm conclusions about the relationship between gender and ratings of judicial fairness can be reached.
What about the nature of interactions people have with judges and others who work in the criminal justice system? Do these experiences influence ratings of judicial fairness? The 2009 version of the ACS contained a series of statements pertaining to respondents’ experiences with racism while living in Anchorage. The response categories for each statement were yes, no, or don’t know. We selected two of these items to examine the relationship between respondents’ experiences with those who work in the criminal justice system, and their perceptions of judicial fairness. The two statements were: I have experienced racism from police and I have experienced racism from a judge, lawyer, or other member of the justice system. An estimated 7.8 percent of Anchorage adults reported having experienced racism in their interactions with police, while an estimated 4.2 percent reported racism from a judge, lawyer, or other member of the justice system. Figure 4 presents Anchorage adults’ ratings of judicial fairness according to their responses to these two items.
Among those who reported experiencing racism in their encounters with police, an estimated 55.4 percent rated the fairness of criminal court judges as good or excellent. This percentage was significantly higher for those who indicated they had never experienced racism when interacting with the police (68.5%). This difference in perceptions of judicial fairness was statistically significant (p=.016), suggesting that experiencing racism in encounters with police may have a “spillover” effect when it comes to perceptions of judicial fairness. A much more pronounced association was found for the measure of racism at the hands of a judge, lawyer, or other member of the justice system. Among those who responded yes to the experience of racism, only 27.5 percent rated criminal court judges as good or excellent with respect to treating people fairly. In contrast, 68.9 percent of those who answered no provided good or excellent ratings. This difference was highly significant (p=.000).
Taken together, these findings suggest that the nature of interpersonal interactions people have with members of the criminal justice system, particularly when those interactions are perceived by members of the public to be racialized, may be important for understanding how perceptions of judicial fairness are formed. Importantly, however, the same qualifications that were applied to the relationship between gender and perceptions of judicial fairness also apply here. The association we have identified between the nature of interactions with criminal justice actors and perceptions of judicial fairness has not been examined within the context of other explanatory factors. It is possible that once other explanatory factors are taken into account, the relationships we have uncovered will disappear.
At present, relatively little published research exists specifically focusing on public perceptions of local courts. Given the important role these courts play in the administration of justice in the United States, the dearth of studies examining the image of local courts in the public mind represents a curious absence in the literature. Our intent in writing this brief article on citizens’ views of judicial fairness is to shed light on this under-researched subject and, hopefully, to spark future conversations about procedural justice in local courts.
Brad A. Myrstol and Cory R. Lepage are assistant professors in the Justice Center.