Public Policy Center, University of Nebraska


Date of this Version

October 2001


Published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law 19 (2001), pp. 197–198. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Used by permission.


This special issue is fortunate in its timing. The topic of public perceptions of the courts is having a rare moment in the limelight thanks to the drama of Florida’s ballots and what can count as a vote (or what opportunities there are for recounting ballots) in the U.S. Presidential election. The outcome of the political election seemed to rest on successive decisions by the judicial system: in particular, Florida’s trial and appellate courts, the federal court of appeals, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. Each of these courts addressed the propriety of electoral ballot counts for Presidential candidates in various Florida counties. The apparent political nature of the legal decisions in virtually each case fueled concern about the solidity of public support for the judiciary. In particular, claims were made that the results were partisan and would cause an abrupt decline in public support for the courts and in the value given to the judiciary’s independence of other branches of government.

Our initial call for papers for this special issue preceded the Florida events by more than a year. Nonetheless, the resulting issue is very relevant to the questions raised in news reports and debated in list-serves of social scientists and legal professionals interested in the law and legal institutions. What do the articles have in common? All seven articles are empirical. Six of the seven rely on data from surveys conducted in the United States and analyze opinion on “state and local courts” or “courts in your community” or “the courts of State X”. The U.S. Supreme Court, the staple of political science and sociological examination of American courts, is rarely mentioned. This may, in part, reflect, the availability of new data. Fifteen states have commissioned opinion surveys since 1995. In addition, in recent years three national surveys focused on state, but not federal, courts. There are other similarities among the articles. All seven studies refer to racial and ethnic diff erences in opinions about the courts and legal institutions, and four of the seven explicitly seek to explain those diff erences, including the sole non-U.S. study, a consideration of ethnic differences in Israel.

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