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Research Will Examine Citizen Support for Judicial Institutions

July 31, 2019

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant of nearly $400,000 to Florida State University and Penn State University for research being conducted by political scientists on citizens' attitudes toward politicians who seek to change or disable the court system.

Politicians in a number of countries frequently make attempts to politicize or undermine the judicial branch of government, such as "packing" court membership or reducing judicial ability to decide certain cases.

"Collaborative Research: Judicial Legitimacy in Comparative Perspective," led by FSU Associate Professor Amanda Driscoll and Penn State Associate Professor Michael J. Nelson, is an extension of work the two have been conducting in the U.S. This new project will look beyond our borders to examine the electoral costs and benefits of attacks on the judiciary by incumbent politicians in 12 countries around the world.

“In democracies around the globe, independent courts are under attack,” Driscoll said. “Populist leaders in countries as diverse as Venezuela, the U.S., Hungary, South Africa, Poland, and Bolivia have recently proposed – and, in some cases, implemented – court-curbing proposals designed to undermine the institutional independence of the national high courts and curtail the institutional separation of powers.”

The two scholars seek to understand the conditions under which voters may be willing and able to punish incumbent politicians who take such actions, as well as how these actions may benefit the politicians who advance them.

Driscoll and Nelson first publicly wrote about their earlier U.S.-based research in a March 2019 article in the Washington Post, reprinted on the college's "Wicked Problems, Wicked Solutions" blog and in the upcoming issue of the college's annual magazine, Engage.

That article focused on the issue of the public’s approval of adding more justices to the U.S. federal judiciary and expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court. The research found that many voters are more tolerant of proposals to change judicial composition than the conventional wisdom suggests. In fact, a sizable minority said they might even vote for incumbents who advocate such changes, particularly when they are proposed by fellow partisans and/or justified in apolitical terms.

“If these sorts of proposals actually mobilize some voters, this implies that incumbents might benefit electorally from attacking or trying to stack the courts,” Driscoll said.

The newly funded project would take that examination global to explain variations in support for judicial institutions in other countries as a function of citizens' democratic values, support for incumbents, the political context in which they live, and their satisfaction with judicial policymaking.

"Understanding the foundations and consequences of public support for democratic institutions is essential for building and maintaining the rule of law worldwide," Driscoll said. “Beyond the study of the courts, we seek to understand if and when the public is willing to stand up to defend democratic institutions when incumbents try to ‘rewrite the rules’ to serve their own political ends.”

The key intellectual contribution of this study is the use of an original survey experiment to probe the consequences of court curbing for incumbents. The experiment relies on a novel dependent variable – support for the incumbent who seeks to curb the court – to examine a behavioral manifestation of legitimacy theory.

According to Driscoll and Nelson, the theoretical framework for this research emphasizes the role of democratic values, a concept that is often referenced in existing studies of judicial legitimacy but has not been tested in a systematic fashion. The project advances beyond earlier attempts to understand judicial legitimacy in its theoretical focus, experimental design, and the breadth of data incorporated into the study.

Beyond increased understanding of key political processes, an important impact of the project will be the provision of publicly available data on public support for judicial institutions in 12 countries throughout the world, the first of its kind in more than 25 years.

About 75 percent of the funding will come to FSU and the remainder to Penn State. The NSF support will allow the researchers to employ undergraduate and graduate research assistants at both universities, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups. They also plan to develop teaching modules for undergraduate courses using the data.

“We’re elated at the opportunity to expand and extend our ongoing work thanks to the support from the National Science Foundation,” Driscoll said. “The results of this research may prove critical in explaining democratization and democratic backsliding in countries around the world.”