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Promoting Public Trust and Confidence in Courts Vital to Our Future

February 28, 2023

Promoting Public Trust and Confidence in Courts Vital to Our Future

By Forrest James “Jim” Robinson Jr.

We continue to see a trend of eroding public trust and confidence in courts that should alarm us all. Courts exist to uphold the rule of law. Properly functioning courts depend on the public’s trust and confidence. Society’s rules and norms are largely voluntary. We expect people will comply, not just because of possible penalties for non-compliance, but also because people perceive courts to be fair and impartial.

Surveys tell us that eroding public trust and confidence is undermining courts’ foundation. 

Each year, the National Center for State Courts conducts a national survey on how the public perceives courts. The center’s 2022 State of the State Courts survey in late October 2022 found the public’s confidence in state courts declined from 76% in 2018, to 64% in 2021, and to 60% in 2022. Similarly, the public’s confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court declined from 73% in 2012, to 63% in 2021, to 53% in 2022. 

Other surveys produce consistent findings. Results from a September 2022 Pew Research Center survey found the public is almost evenly split in its views of the Supreme Court: 48% held a favorable view of the court while 49% held an unfavorable view. A June 2022 Gallup poll found the public’s confidence in the Supreme Court was 25%, down from 36% in 2021 and five points lower than the previous low recorded in 2014. 

A 2022 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found that only 40% of Americans believe the Supreme Court justices “set aside their personal and political views and make rulings based on the Constitution, the law, and the facts of the case,” down 19 points from 2021. A 2021 Annenberg survey found that 34% of Americans would consider abolishing the Supreme Court if it issued a decision that most Americans disagreed with, up from 20% in 2019.

The NCSC’s 2022 survey provides a quick snapshot of an eroding respect for the judiciary, but it does not specifically identify the causes. Even so, the Center’s polling firm noted the Supreme Court’s recent abortion decision and the sensed politicization of the Court were likely driving down the numbers.

The center’s findings show that liberals and moderates who once held the percentages up are now dragging them down. In 2017, there was almost no difference in respondents’ views of the Supreme Court based on ideology. Since then, confidence in the Supreme Court has fallen three points among conservatives, 25 points among moderates, and 45 points among liberals. The survey found similar, but smaller, trends in views of state courts.

As for race, confidence in the Supreme Court dropped nine points among white voters and 19 points among Black voters. Confidence in state courts declined two points among white voters and seven points among Black voters. 

The largest shift in public confidence is due to racial, gender, and socio-economic bias. Responding to a question about whether state courts were “fair and impartial,” in 2021 42% said that state courts were not doing well, and that increased to 49% in 2022. 

Equally troubling, on whether courts deliver “equal justice for all,” in 2014 62% said the courts were doing well or very well while 35% said the opposite. In 2022, 43% said the courts were doing well or very well, while 49% said the opposite. On this measure, the gulf between white respondents and people of color is wide. In 2022, 46% of white respondents said courts are doing well or very well while just 38% of Hispanic respondents and 30% of Black respondents said the same.

The survey revealed a new low on the question of whether courts were unbiased in their decisions. In 2019, the survey showed a net 11-point positive agreement with the statement, but that dropped to a net 3-point disagreement in 2022.

On a positive note, the 2022 survey shows growing confidence in remote court appearances. Also, strong majorities believe the judicial system does a good job of holding judges accountable. 

Now, more than ever, we must champion civics education about the importance of the rule of law and the role of courts. We must disarm organized disinformation attacks. The public needs to understand that state courts are far removed from the Supreme Court battles that make national headlines. As the NCSC’s polling firm notes, we must “emphasize the ability of state courts to better reflect the values and customs of the communities they serve and the historic preference of the country’s founders for state constitutions and state courts as the first line of defense for our rights and liberties.”

With so much work ahead, inaction is dangerous, and complacency allows the slide in trust and confidence to continue.

Forrest James “Jim” Robinson, is a senior partner at Hite, Fanning & Honeyman LLP, Wichita. He engages in a broad litigation and counseling practice spanning trial and appellate courts at the state and federal levels. He has been inducted into the D.C.-based National Center for State Courts’ Warren E. Burger Society, which honors persons who have made an extraordinary commitment to the administration of justice. In 2018, he was appointed by the Kansas Supreme Court to the Kansas Judicial Council.

 National Center for State Courts, State of the State Courts // 2022 Poll, https://www.ncsc.org/consulting-and-research/areas-of-expertise/court-leadership/state-of-the-state-courts.

 Pew Research Center, Positive Views of Supreme Court Decline Sharply Following Abortion Ruling, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/09/01/positive-views-of-supreme-court-decline-sharply-following-abortion-ruling/.

 Gallup, Confidence in U.S. Supreme Court Sinks to Historic Low, https://news.gallup.com/poll/394103/confidence-supreme-court-sinks-historic-low.aspx.

 Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, Over Half of Americans Disapprove of Supreme Court as Trust Plummets, https://www.asc.upenn.edu/news-events/news/over-half-americans-disapprove-supreme-court-trust-plummets.

 Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, 1 in 3 Americans Say They Might Consider Abolishing or Limiting  Supreme Court, https://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/1-in-3-americans-say-they-might-consider-abolishing-or-limiting-supreme-court/.

This article was originally published in the Kansas Bar Journal, January/February 2023, Vol. 92, No. 1, and is posted with the permission of the Kansas Bar Association.

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