The Supreme Court takes great pains to avoid the appearance of politics. Yet much of what courts do, especially the Supreme Court, is political. Early in President Trump’s presidency, he claimed that the federal district court overturning his travel ban executive order made “a political decision.” The assumption behind President Trump’s calling the decision political is the expectation that courts ought to be “above politics.” The accusation of courts behaving politically may have important implications for how the public evaluates the Court and its decisions.
There is no shortage of research to support both views. Some scholars have found that the Court is viewed by the public as nonpolitical (or legal) while others have found evidence that it is perceived to be political. We created and tested a novel measure of Court perceptions to address this question.
When researchers want to know what people think about something, they typically ask them questions in a survey. While valuable, self-reported answers have important limitations such as people being unwilling to give certain types of responses. Surveys may also do a poor job capturing an individual’s intuition or gut-level responses, impressions that often shape how a person thinks and behaves. Scholars refer to these intuitions as implicit attitudes. The idea is that people have two types of thinking processes. Implicit attitudes are our automatic, gut-level responses whereas explicit attitudes (answers in a typical survey) stem from slower, more reflective thought processes.
We use the implicit association test (IAT) to measure implicit attitudes in our study. The IAT is a task where individuals rapidly match objects to attributes. The idea is that the faster a match between an object (the Court or Congress) and an attribute (political/non-political) the stronger the association. Using this method, our results show that people make snap judgments about the political nature of the Supreme Court. The Court is implicitly perceived as less political relative to Congress (a fully political referent) and more political relative to traffic court (a non-political referent). In other words, it is somewhere in between political and apolitical. We also find little relationship between implicit perceptions and explicit perceptions (as measured with survey items) of the Court.
We also examined whether snap judgements of the Court matter. Since the Supreme Court depends on the goodwill of others to comply with its rulings, perceptions of the Court’s legitimacy play an important role. If the public views the Court as highly political, the public is less likely to view the Court as legitimate, withdrawing institutional support and acceptance of its decisions. In our analyses, we found support for this idea. Individuals who implicitly associated the Court more with politics were less supportive of the institution. The less you see the Court as political, the more you support it. However, our results for acceptance of the Supreme Court’s decisions were mixed. Snap judgments predicted acceptance of one of two Court decisions in our study suggesting that the effect of implicit political perceptions is likely to vary by characteristics such as preexisting polarization over the issue at stake in the case.