An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2008

Will ignorance & partisan election of judges undermine public trust?

Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Bruce W. Hardy

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2001, is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications include “Everything You Think You Know About Politics… And Why You're Wrong” (2000) and “Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words” (with Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, 2008).

Bruce W. Hardy is a senior research analyst at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution. By a limited Constitution, I understand one which contains certain specified exceptions to the legislative authority; such, for instance, as that it shall pass no bills of attainder, no ex post facto laws, and the like. Limitations of this kind can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing.

–Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 78

The judicial branch enjoys higher levels of public trust than the other branches of the U.S. government. “[The Supreme] Court is an especially well regarded institution, and over and over again, polls show that Americans have more confidence in the Court than either the president or the Congress,” write political scientists Gregory A. Caldeira and Kevin T. McGuire. “In evaluating the Court’s authority, most Americans think that it is exercising about the right amount of political power, and more often than not they believe that the Court is doing a good job.”1  Consistent with this notion, an August 2007 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania2 found that 66 percent of Americans trust the Supreme Court a “great deal” or “fair amount” to operate in the best interests of the American people. Sixty percent of Americans trust the courts in their own state a “great deal” or “fair amount,” while only 41 percent of Americans polled trust the president a “great deal” or “fair amount” to operate in the best interests of the American people–the same level of confidence that Americans have in Congress (41 percent).

However, lurking in the data from the same survey are two factors with the capacity to undermine confidence in the judiciary and, with it, public willingness to protect the prerogatives of judges and the courts. Ignorance about the role and function of judges and the courts and partisan campaigning for judicial office each independently threaten public trust in the judiciary. As trust declines, willingness to constrain the judiciary rises.

.  .  .


  • 1Gregory A. Caldeira and Kevin T. McGuire, “What Americans Know About The Courts and Why It Matters,” in The Judicial Branch, ed. Kermit L. Hall and Kevin T. McGuire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 264.
  • 2The 2007 Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial Survey was prepared by Princeton Survey Research Associates International for the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. A total of 1,514 adults 18 and older were surveyed by phone from August 8, 2007, to September 2, 2007. The survey has a margin of error = ± 3% for results based on full sample. Additional data from this and other surveys can be found at
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