Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Political Science

First Advisor

Vanessa Baird

Second Advisor

Jennifer Wolak

Third Advisor

Joshua Strayhorn

Fourth Advisor

Jeffrey Harden

Fifth Advisor

Harry Surden

Abstract

Although the total number of incoming cases at the federal-level in 2013 was over 350,000, the total number of incoming cases at the state-level hovered between 90 and 100 million. To say that state courts are important to the American political system is an understatement. They determine, to paraphrase former Justice William Brennan, whether the United States truly lives up to the ideal of equal justice for all. It is therefore surprising that very little research has examined what people know or how people feel about these institutions. In this dissertation, I attempt to uncover the extent of the public’s knowledge of their state judicial branch, how they come to know about it, and how the public evaluates their state courts.

The thesis of this dissertation is that people’s knowledge and evaluations of courts is dependent on what those courts are doing. Simply put, people are responsive to court decisions. Using four different datasets, two unique to this dissertation, I find overwhelming support for this contention. People’s knowledge of the ideological leanings of their state supreme court is a function of court actions that attract the attention of the state media such as issuing a pro same-sex marriage decision or allowing for more executions to take place. And people’s judgments of their state courts is a product of how ideologically extreme they are. Democrats view extremely liberal courts as significantly more impartial and legitimate than Republicans while Republicans view extremely conservative courts as more impartial and legitimate than Democrats. Ideologically balanced courts produce no meaningful differences between partisans and are viewed as being highly impartial and legitimate.

The findings in this dissertation challenge conventional wisdom by suggesting that a sizable portion of the American public is aware of their state court system and that public evaluations of the judiciary can be grounded in partisanship when they act partisan in nature. And, I believe I provide an answer to a recent puzzle in judicial politics: why support for the Supreme Court is unrelated to party identification. I argue that it is because the Court is ideologically balanced in its decision-making.

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