Studies of the factors shaping public perceptions of the Supreme Court reveal a close
correspondence between individuals' personal views on an issue and the Court's majority
opinions pertaining to it. When the Court's rulings are consistent with people's opinions,
they are more likely to express a favorable view of the Court. Conversely, when the
Court renders an opinion that is at odds with personally held points of view, citizens
are less likely to view the Court favorably. Notably, however, research also suggests
that public attitudes toward the Court are resistant to rapid modification; no single
holding is likely to produce significant change in public perceptions of the Court.
Dramatic shifts in attitudes typically (though not always) require an accumulation
of contrary Court decisions over time.
Procedural Justice and Local Courts
By contrast, substantive justice concerns are believed to play a less prominent role
in shaping public perceptions of local courts. Instead, procedural justice concerns are thought to exert more influence. Procedural justice refers to the perceived
fairness of the processes and procedures legal authorities use to make decisions, and it consists
of three interrelated elements: (a) motive-based trust (benevolence), (b) quality
of decisions (neutrality), and (c) quality of treatment (respect).
Procedural justice has received a great deal of attention in recent years because
of mounting evidence that legal authorities-including judges-can encourage voluntary
acceptance (as opposed to coerced compliance) with their decisions and directives
if they behave in a manner that is perceived as fair. When the conduct of judges is perceived by citizens to be in accordance with prevailing
standards of fairness, and when citizens are confident that judges' motives for action
are trustworthy, people are more willing to consent and defer to legal authority.
Research also shows that, in addition to encouraging voluntary compliance with legal
directives, judicial conduct that is perceived to be procedurally just enhances the
stature and overall legitimacy of courts in the eyes of the public.
The importance of procedural justice concerns in shaping public perceptions of local
courts is likely due to proximity: the general public is much closer, both geographically and legally, to local courts
than they are to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only is the Court's physical location
in Washington, D.C., it is the highest appellate court in the country. In order for a case to come before the U.S. Supreme Court (in
all but the most exceptional cases), it must first be adjudicated in a trial court,
wend its way through lower appellate courts, and finally be accepted for review by
the Court. Typically, the legal road it must follow is a long one.
Local courts, on the other hand, are in close proximity to citizens. They are located
where people live, and they provide a venue in which citizens can directly interact
with the court, either through observation or participation. In contrast to appellate
courts, which are limited to reviews of the decisions rendered by lower courts, local
courts are courts of original jurisdiction, or, as they are more commonly known, trial courts. As courts of original jurisdiction, local courts are where cases are initially heard
and decided. Whether a matter is a civil or criminal issue, local courts are tasked
with determining findings of fact and issuing conclusions of law (that is, applying
federal, state, and/or local law to the facts presented).
This article focuses on a specific dimension of public perceptions of local courts:
citizens' impressions of judicial fairness in criminal courts. We focus on public
perceptions of judicial fairness because it is judges who preside over the proceedings of local courts. The courtroom is the domain of
judges, and within that context they appear to exert near-total control over both
content and procedure, and thus public perceptions of local courts have their foundation
in people's experiences with, and impressions of, judges.
Data and Methods
The data presented here come from the most recent iteration of the Anchorage Community Survey (ACS), which was conducted during the summer and fall of 2009. The ACS used a mixed-mode
methodology, which provided respondents the choice of completing a hard-copy version
of the questionnaire and returning it in a pre-addressed, postage-paid envelope, or
completing the questionnaire over the Internet via a secure website. In total, 4,702
households were included in the sample. Of these, 560 were deemed ineligible, thereby
reducing the size of the sample to 4,142. A total of 2,080 questionnaires were completed
for a response rate of 50.3 percent. For the analyses presented below cases were removed
if a respondent did not report their age or if the respondent's reported age was less
than 18 years (n=139), resulting in a final sample of 1,941 adult respondents. Statistical
weighting procedures were used to correct for non-response, unequal probability of
selection, and non-coverage.
Survey respondents were asked to provide information on a wide variety of topics including:
their assessment of the quality of life in Anchorage neighborhoods, their levels of social connectedness and civic engagement, their experiences with racism, their perceptions of crime and social disorder, their evaluation of local governmental services, their views of the criminal justice system, as well as household and demographic characteristics.
Anchorage Residents' Perceptions of Judicial Fairness
Within the criminal justice section of the questionnaire, each respondent was asked to rate members of the criminal
court community (judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police) with respect
to treating people fairly. Response categories for this measure were: poor, fair, good, excellent, and don't know.
Figure 1 presents Anchorage adults' ratings of judicial fairness. From left to right, the columns represent the percentage of Anchorage adults rating
the fairness of criminal court judges as poor, fair, good, or excellent. The "whiskers" superimposed on each column represent the margin of error for each
estimate, which range from Â± 2.7% for fair to Â± 3.7% for good. Fully two-thirds (66.9%; Â± 3.6%) of Anchorage adults indicated that criminal court
judges do a good or excellent job when it comes to treating people fairly.
In order to put these findings in perspective, we also estimated Anchorage adults'
ratings of the other members of the criminal court community: prosecutors, defense
attorneys, and the police. Figure 2 presents the results for each group of criminal
justice actors side-by-side. Each column represents the percentage of Anchorage adults
who rated the fairness of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the police as
"good" or "excellent." The dark gray column depicts the results for criminal court
judges; the three light gray bars represent the results for prosecutors, defense attorneys,
and the police. The most notable feature of the data presented in Figure 2 is the
uniformity of response. Overall, Anchorage adults provided equally favorable fairness
ratings for all four groups. (Although there are observable differences in each group's
ratings, none of these differences was found to be statistically significant.)
Perceptions of Judicial Fairness: Who? or What?
What factors influence public perceptions of judicial fairness? Which of the many
factors that might have an impact on people's views of criminal court judges actually
do? We explore these questions from two vantage points: respondents' demographic characteristics
(who they are), and the nature of their interactions with judges and other criminal justice
actors (what they have experienced).
Figure 3 presents Anchorage adults' perceptions of judicial fairness according to
their age, their racial group membership, and their gender. Each bar in Figure 3 depicts
the percentage of Anchorage adults within each response category rating the fairness
of criminal court judges as good or excellent. Results are presented for six age groups (18-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64, and
65 years and older), five race/ethnic groups (Alaska Native/American Indian, Asian,
Black/African American, White/Caucasian, and All Other), and two gender groups (males
With respect to age, those on each end of the age continuum provided the most favorable
assessments, while those in the middle of the age distribution were the most critical
of judicial fairness. Despite this variability in Anchorage adults' ratings of judicial
fairness, none of these between-group differences were large enough to conclude that
they were the result of anything other than random variability (p=.830). Similarly, there was observable variation in perceptions of judicial fairness
among racial groups, but these differences were not statistically significant (p=.142). The last two columns in Figure 3 compare the judicial fairness ratings of
men and women. An estimated 72 percent of adult women rated criminal court judges
as good or excellent with respect to treating people fairly. Adult men, on the other hand, tended to offer
lower judicial fairness ratings (61.7% good or excellent). In contrast to the results presented for age and racial group membership, these
differences were statistically significant (p=.003).
Based on these results, it appears that the answer to the question Are demographic characteristics associated with perceptions of judicial fairness? is a qualified "maybe." Our results suggest that age and racial group membership
are not associated with Anchorage adults' ratings of judicial fairness, while gender
may influence them. While we do find a significant association between gender and ratings
of judicial fairness at the bivariate level, it is possible that once other factors
(for example, the nature of an individual's experiences with judges or other criminal
justice actors, see below) are taken into account this relationship will dissolve.
Further study using more advanced statistical methods is necessary before any firm
conclusions about the relationship between gender and ratings of judicial fairness
can be reached.
What about the nature of interactions people have with judges and others who work
in the criminal justice system? Do these experiences influence ratings of judicial
fairness? The 2009 version of the ACS contained a series of statements pertaining
to respondents' experiences with racism while living in Anchorage. The response categories for each statement were yes, no, or don't know. We selected two of these items to examine the relationship between respondents'
experiences with those who work in the criminal justice system, and their perceptions
of judicial fairness. The two statements were: I have experienced racism from police and I have experienced racism from a judge,
lawyer, or other member of the justice system. An estimated 7.8 percent of Anchorage adults reported having experienced racism
in their interactions with police, while an estimated 4.2 percent reported racism
from a judge, lawyer, or other member of the justice system. Figure 4 presents Anchorage
adults' ratings of judicial fairness according to their responses to these two items.
Among those who reported experiencing racism in their encounters with police, an estimated
55.4 percent rated the fairness of criminal court judges as good or excellent. This percentage was significantly higher for those who indicated they had never
experienced racism when interacting with the police (68.5%). This difference in perceptions
of judicial fairness was statistically significant (p=.016), suggesting that experiencing racism in encounters with police may have a "spillover"
effect when it comes to perceptions of judicial fairness. A much more pronounced association
was found for the measure of racism at the hands of a judge, lawyer, or other member of the justice system. Among those who responded yes to the experience of racism, only 27.5 percent rated criminal court judges as good or excellent with respect to treating people fairly. In contrast, 68.9 percent of those who answered
no provided good or excellent ratings. This difference was highly significant (p=.000).
Taken together, these findings suggest that the nature of interpersonal interactions
people have with members of the criminal justice system, particularly when those interactions
are perceived by members of the public to be racialized, may be important for understanding
how perceptions of judicial fairness are formed. Importantly, however, the same qualifications
that were applied to the relationship between gender and perceptions of judicial fairness
also apply here. The association we have identified between the nature of interactions
with criminal justice actors and perceptions of judicial fairness has not been examined
within the context of other explanatory factors. It is possible that once other explanatory
factors are taken into account, the relationships we have uncovered will disappear.
At present, relatively little published research exists specifically focusing on public
perceptions of local courts. Given the important role these courts play in the administration of justice
in the United States, the dearth of studies examining the image of local courts in
the public mind represents a curious absence in the literature. Our intent in writing
this brief article on citizens' views of judicial fairness is to shed light on this
under-researched subject and, hopefully, to spark future conversations about procedural
justice in local courts.
Brad A. Myrstol and Cory R. Lepage are assistant professors in the Justice Center.