Section Review

Public Support for Our Courts Does Matter

Francis TaltyFrancis T. Talty is chair of the Judicial Administration Section.

This essay is a condensed, excerpted version of "Public Perceptions of Massachusetts Courts: An Examination of Support and Its Affect on Use of Courts," Talty, F., © 2002

Everyone wants to be liked. For courts, judges, lawyers and staff, we might reasonably ask whether public approval, whether they like us, really matters.

More than one judge has observed that people don't generally come to court for pleasant experiences. Sure, adoption proceedings and Law Day ceremonies put smiles on faces. But the reality is that court is not always, nor is it designed to be, a pleasant experience. So we might not be surprised at research results that tell us people who have experiences in court don't poll high support levels.

What is disturbing to those of us who examine the administration of justice are studies that showed those with more experience in court had lower support levels than those who didn't. One major study done by the National Center for State Courts in 1978 found that "those having knowledge and experience with courts voice greatest dissatisfaction and criticism."1
That finding was repeated in several subsequent studies in the 1980s and became generally accepted as true, until some newer studies in the late 1990s challenged the idea that "the more you know, the less you like" the courts.

A study of Wisconsin courts in 1998 surveyed litigants and other court users and found a positive relationship between knowledge of courts, experience in court and support for courts. The principal researcher, Herbert Kritzer of the University of Wisconsin, went further. He examined the data used in the 1978 NCSC study and concluded that the data did not show statistical evidence to support its finding on knowledge and support.2
The Kritzer study was followed by a major national study of state and federal courts conducted by the American Bar Association as a 20-year follow-up to the 1978 study. Indeed, the ABA study, "Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System," corroborated the Wisconsin research, concluding "those with more knowledge have more confidence in the system."3
In 2001, with the assistance of a good many in the Massachusetts Trial Court, I surveyed litigants and jurors on a number of questions. A key question for examination was on this relationship between public knowledge, personal experience and public support.

The results were consistent with the Wisconsin and the ABA studies. Those who had a positive experience in court had higher levels of support than others. Though seemingly obvious, that was not the consensus prior to the recent studies.

In looking at the effect of knowledge on support, I came across a possible explanation for the contradictory findings between the 1978 and 1998 studies. Knowledge was measured in two ways in all of the studies referenced in this article. First, respondents were asked to describe their levels of knowledge about the court from "very knowledgeable" to "not very knowledgeable." They were also asked a series of true/false questions about courts, such as, "A criminal defendant must prove his or her innocence." A knowledge score was then calculated.

In my 2001 study, an odd result occurred. Those who said they were knowledgeable had lower opinions of court than those who said they were not as knowledgeable. But in looking at the support levels of those with objectively higher knowledge (from the answers they got right), the opposite result obtained. That is, those who, in fact, knew more about courts had higher support for courts than those who scored lower.

Returning to the first question: Does it matter if people like courts? And even if it does matter, what difference does it make? Well, we might care if people's support for courts influences their behavior with regard to courts. For example, are people who think highly of courts more likely to serve as jurors, or as witnesses in cases in which they aren't directly involved? Are court supporters more likely to file a small claim than use self-help, or do nothing?

In the 2001 study, I attempted to discover if there was a correlation between support and likelihood of future use of courts. The data, though not nearly as comprehensive as the national studies, verified a statistically significant relationship between support and use. If these findings are valid, then we should care whether people like courts.

So we know that people's experience in our courts directly influences how they think about courts, and to what extent they support the courts. We also know that the more that people support the courts the better will be their participation in the system. We must then ask ourselves, how can we improve the experience of court users? Innovations like information booths, explanatory pamphlets, minimizing wait times etc. are small ways that popular experience is determined. To be sure, the ways we can enhance the experience of court users are many and varied.

In a time when courts face fiscal and structural challenges from all quarters, it is important to know that public support for courts does indeed matter. How we make use of this knowledge may help shape the future of our courts.

End notes

1. Yankelovich, Skelly and White, Inc., "Public Image of Courts," National Center for State Courts (1978).[back]

2. Kritzer, Hubert M. and John Voelkher, "Familiarity Breeds Respect: How Wisconsin Citizens View Their Courts", 82 Judicature, No.2, (Sept. Oct. 1998), 59.[back]

3. American Bar Association, "Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System," (1999)[back]

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