Although we’ve emphasized that it takes time to assess the public’s reaction to a Supreme Court decision — and the effect of that reaction on the public’s goodwill toward the court — blogs operate in the here and now. So we venture forth with some initial, tentative thoughts in response to the court’s decision today on the Affordable Care Act.
If opinion polls are a reliable indicator, the public may be disappointed in the outcome of the case — a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 41 percent wanted the law struck down altogether and another 27 percent wanted the individual mandate struck down while keeping the rest. But the Supreme Court has had many opinions over the years that have gone against the trend in current public opinion, and in the past that hasn’t caused any lasting damage to the court’s overall support from the public. In fact, one of the features of the Supreme Court in the past has been its ability to make unpopular decisions without losing public legitimacy, at least in part because the court has been widely viewed as above politics.
We had expressed concern that this might change if the public perceived the court had merely acted politically in handling the health-care cases. Indeed, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 50 percent thought the Supreme Court would rule based on “partisan political views.” So the public was initially skeptical about the fairness of the process.
What does today’s opinion tell the public about the fairness of the process the justices followed in reaching their decision? The initial news coverage has predictably focused on two aspects of the Court’s decision: 1) the outcome upholding the Affordable Care Act and 2) that the majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.
Adherence to rule of law
Indeed, in the big-picture view, which is where public opinion is formed, those are key points. And that means that the chief justice — the justice whose very role makes him the face of the Supreme Court — will be perceived by many as having decided the case on something other than “partisan political views.” That could certainly reinforce the historic public vision of the Supreme Court as an institution that places adherence to the rule of law above politics.
In addition, whenever anyone paints the court in partisan terms, members of the public may think back to the chief justice’s key vote in upholding the Affordable Care Act and conclude that the Roberts Court is not simply a political institution making decisions based on policy preferences rather than on the law and evidence.
The court’s decision confirms our previously expressed view that Chief Justice Roberts indeed had an open mind during oral argument, and that his questions were fair ones to be asked of both sides. In these days of pundits, many commented publicly that it was nearly a foregone conclusion that the court would find the entire statute unconstitutional — based on what was observed at oral argument.
Perhaps this high-profile example that such guesses can be wrong will also be helpful; the public may realize that oral arguments are part of the process of learning about and exploring the issues, not deciding them. An open process in which issues are explored, parties’ positions are better understood, and the court then retires to consider everything it has heard, fulfills public expectations for procedural fairness.
We’ve only looked briefly at the written opinions at this point. The justices receive mixed grades in terms of being respectful, but — at least in their introductions and conclusions — they have tried to explain basic concepts involving the exercise of government power under the Constitution. But news-media commentary is likely to give prominence to those instances where one or more of the justices indulged in sarcasm and belittled the other side of the decision.
Should opinions be readable?
That leads us to wonder whether the justices might yet benefit greatly by writing more for a lay audience than for each other or for constitutional law scholars. When he wrote the draft opinion for Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren set out to write an opinion so short that it would be reprinted by newspapers and read by the public. Warren’s memo to his fellow justices accompanying the draft told his colleagues that the draft had been “prepared on the theory that the opinion “should be short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” He wanted to make sure that the opinion would be understood and accepted by the public.
Perhaps the Affordable Care Act has so many more moving parts than the concept of segregated schools had that it was necessary for the justices to issue opinions totaling 193 pages to decide the case and explain the decision. Even so, we know that public interest in the health-care cases was high, and many more citizens would have read the opinion — and gained further appreciation for the court — had the justices written shorter opinions more tailored toward a lay audience. Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in Brown, which took up only 14 pages in the United States Reports (including the syllabus prepared by the reporter to summarize the opinion) may remain a model of succinctness and clarity that modern courts simply do not approach.
In sum, the combination of a well-publicized oral argument that was fairly handled and allowed issues to be explored and a ruling in which the most prominent justice went against partisan stereotyping may augur well for long-term public support for the court. Time — and future events — will tell.
Steve Leben is a judge on the Kansas Court of Appeals. Kevin Burke is a trial judge on the Hennepin County District Court and the current president of the American Judges Association. David B. Rottman is a Principal Court Research Consultant at the National Center for State Courts. Tom R. Tyler is the Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School. This article is reprinted with permission from the Procedural Fairness for Judges and Courts blog.
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