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Public Perceptions of Judicial Unanimity and Dissent: The Impact of Divided Court Decisions on the Mass Media and Public Opinion


Do judicial dissents affect mass politics? Many people, including judges, scholars, political commentators, and public officials claim that they do. The conventional wisdom is that unanimous rulings boost support for court decisions, while judicial division fuels popular opposition. As such, it has been suggested that courts present a united front on controversial cases as a strategy for garnering support and quelling resistance. However, empirical analysis of the public perception of judicial unanimity and dissent is sparse, incomplete, and inconsistent.

This dissertation is broadly guided by the question of whether unity/division among judges can in fact influence media coverage of and popular attitudes toward court decisions. In doing so, I consider both the role of the news media as an intermediary between the courts and the public and direct public reaction to information about court unity. Using a combination of existing and original data, I analyze newspaper coverage patterns to determine if judicial consensus has an independent effect on the visibility and favorability of Supreme Court coverage. While previous work has assumed that the correlation between coverage and division is the result of the most newsworthy cases producing the most divided outcomes, I find that dissent on the Supreme Court generates press coverage independent of other factors associated with a case's newsworthiness. Moreover, this dissertation is the first study to find that narrower Supreme Court majorities attract more critical coverage.

In addition, using a series of original survey experiments from a nationally representative sample, I expand and improve upon existing research of the direct popular reaction to judicial unanimity and dissent. Though most previous work on this subject had found no link between judicial consensus and public opinion, recently published findings have suggested that unanimity does indeed boost agreement with Supreme Court decisions across a variety of issue areas. Breaking with this, I find that popular reaction to judicial consensus is highly dependent on the ideological salience of the issue involved and that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, dissent can actually foster acceptance of rulings among the Court's opponents by suggesting evidence of procedural justice. However, this effect of majority size on public opinion appears limited to the Supreme Court: I find no evidence of a similar effect at the lower court level.

This dissertation improves upon the existing body of knowledge regarding the judiciary's role in the political world. Not only does it reveal potential evidence of a news media bias toward judicial conflict, its public opinion findings buck both the conventional wisdom and the extant literature. Rather than suggesting that unanimity generally leads to a more supportive populace, as the conventional wisdom argues, or that there is no connection at all, as much of the scholarly literature claims, my findings show that the relationship between judicial consensus is more nuanced and is frequently the opposite of what the conventional wisdom suggests.

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