Public Policy Center, University of Nebraska


Date of this Version

October 1999


Published in Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association 36:3 (Fall 1999), pp. 24-31. Copyright 1999 American Judges Association. Used by permission.


In August 1998 a comprehensive national survey added to the growing mass of information on how the public perceives the state courts. The “Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System,” commissioned by the American Bar Association, relied on telephone interviews of 1,000 American adults selected at random. The respondents were asked for their opinions about “the justice system,” lawyers, judges, law enforcement and the courts. The findings from the ABA survey were optimistic relative to most of the previous surveys. Public confidence in the courts relative to other major institutions seemed higher, and experience with courts appeared to promote higher rather than lower levels of confidence. For the most part, however, there was more continuity than change in the 1998 survey. The public retained rather stereotypical views of how courts and judges work.

Over twenty years of surveys, the same negative and positive images of the judiciary recurred with varying degrees of forcefulness across all of the national and state surveys. The negative images centered on perceived inaccessibility, unfairness in the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, leniency toward criminals, and a lack of concern about the problems of ordinary people. There was concern that the courts are biased in favor of the wealthy and corporations. Indeed, the perception of economic- based unfairness in civil cases seemed to rival the perception of judicial leniency in criminal cases as a source of public dissatisfaction. There also was strong evidence of public concern that political considerations, and especially campaign fundraising, exerted an undue influence on the judiciary.

The surveys also uncovered positive images of the courts. There were perceptions that judges are honest and fair in case decisions and well-trained, that the jury system works, and that judges and court personnel treat members of the public with courtesy and respect.

While the surveys between 1977 and 1998 reveal the contours of a relatively consistent public image of courts, it remained a broad-brush portrait. In particular, we lack a body of data that can measure the extent to which the image of the courts is the same when viewed from the perspective of different social groups. In this article, we use findings from a new survey to explore differences in perceptions of the courts among racial and ethnic groups and other issues that, in our view, deserve urgent attention by the judiciary in a period of reexamination of what the courts are doing and need to do better to secure the public’s trust and confidence.

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