Date of this Version
Court Review, Volume 48, Issue 3, 74-85
The 50 state supreme courts issue more than 5,000 published opinions each year. These opinions are vital to protect the liberties guaranteed by the constitution and laws of the state, impartially uphold and interpret the law, and provide open, just, and timely resolution of all matters. The opinion of the high court is its voice—the means to convey and explain to both legal and general audiences that the court listened, resolved a legal dispute, impartially applied the law, and reached a fair and reasoned judgment. As the highest level of state judiciaries, supreme courts also strive to provide open access to opinions and proceedings.
The challenge for the nation’s judges and justices, public information officers, and members of the bar and media is to make sure that the public understands what is expressed in a supreme court opinion, which is written in the language of the law that speaks to the legal profession and academia. In a splintered media landscape with increased means of communication, partners in various media, traditional or new, must engage if they are to inform. Increasingly, many issues before state supreme courts are of high importance to the public, an environment which requires courts to be transparent, accountable, and accessible. There are means of communication that supreme courts can employ to convey to participants and external audiences that the procedures used to decide and render an opinion are fair and foster respect for the law.
This article discusses the nature of and trends in the formation of state supreme court opinions and the methods by which opinions are communicated to the press, the public, members of the bar, and online communities. It considers current practice in light of a field in social psychology called procedural fairness, a helpful and practical theory that explains what makes it likely that people are satisfied with and comply with decisions by authorities, such as judges. The article goes on to highlight current state court trends, including the use of plain language and summarization, the use of websites for improved communication and dissemination of opinions, and the increase in educational opportunities for appellate bench officers to make opinions clearer and more effective. Historical analysis and a state by state comparison demonstrate changes to opinion length over time, and the article discusses the ramifications that court opinion complexity may have on public and media understanding. A case study on same-sex marriage cases in California, along with findings from a national survey, show that the nation’s highest courts use diverse strategies to more effectively communicate opinions and encourage public understanding. Ultimately, opinions serve as the court’s voice because rulings communicate not only to lawyers but also to the public and media and explain how courts resolve disputes and determine constitutional rights.