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Judicial Tyranny or American Justice? Guest post by Lisa Matthias

‘Research hasn’t been completed until it has been properly communicated.’ This is one of the great mantras of Prof. Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government. What this means is that all research needs and deserves to be communicated to as wide an audience as possible, and published in an accessible format, in order to maximise its potential impact. To that end, we asked Lisa Matthias, who recently published her Master’s research with us at ScienceOpen, to tell us more about her work and what she found. Here’s her story!

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Recently, I published my Masters thesis all about the politicization of US Supreme Court by partisan media. The background behind my research is that partisan news outlets cater their reports to specific partisan groups that have distinct ideological beliefs. These channels broadcast one-sided coverage, which constantly reinforces and strengthens their target audience’s political beliefs, while adopting a hostile position towards opposing views at the same time. This is most deeply highlighted in the US because of the highly polarising nature of the two-party political system.

To achieve such one-sided reporting, news stories are framed. Framing refers to how a story is told, and involves selecting and highlighting certain aspects of it, while others are explicitly neglected. The goal is to encourage a particular interpretation or evaluation of the presented information. Let’s take the Supreme Court’s ruling of legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide as an example. By shifting the audience’s focus to specific pieces of information, such as equal rights, religion, or opposing groups, the decision can be framed in terms of equality, morality, or conflict, respectively.

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Framing (Source)

When people form an opinion they typically take into account all the information available to them. In the case of the Supreme Court, however, it is predominantly the media that provides that information, because the Court is generally detached from the public. This means the media has great control over the information that the public bases its opinion on about the Court and, therefore, the media also affects how the public perceives the Court. However, reporters are often left to interpret the Court’s decisions and to speculate about possible consequences, but they lack the intensive legal training that is essential to fully understand the Court’s highly specified rulings. In trying to make sense of the decisions, journalists might focus on the Justices’ personal and ideological views instead of on the legal reasoning behind the ruling. The consequence of all this is that media coverage of the Supreme Court has become increasingly politicized. On the other hand, the Court wants to convey an image of itself as an apolitical institution, which is described as being guided by legal principles, instead of personal interests, which is more characteristic of politicians.

The problem with this is that when the Supreme Court appears to be just another political institution or simply an extension of the other two governmental branches, its integrity is greatly impaired. A result then is that the public’s confidence in the Justices to make fair and impartial decisions is likely to deteriorate. Yet, public confidence is fundamental for the Court to function properly. A dramatic decline in public support could result in the non-implementation of its rulings, which would undermine its legitimacy. Under these circumstances, the Justices could become inclined to decide in favor of the dominant political party to restore their legitimacy and functionality. Recent opinion polls show that public disapproval of the Supreme Court has risen to a 30-year high and the levels of public support also reveal an existing party gap and polarized attitudes towards the Court.

It becomes obvious that the polarization, once only common to the political realm, is now also affecting the Supreme Court when looking at the ongoing appointment process of a successor for Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away earlier this year. According to Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the President nominates a candidate with the advice and consent of the Senate to appoint a federal judge. Then, the Senate Judicial Committee holds a hearing to assess the candidate’s suitability and votes once the hearing has been performed. If there are no objections to the nominee’s character or qualifications that person is confirmed within only a short time. However, the recent nomination of Merrick Garland is quite different. The Senate, currently dominated by the Republican Party, refuses even to hold hearings for any candidate proposed by President Obama, and so Garland’s appointment process has lasted for seven months up until now.

President Barack Obama meets with Judge Merrick B. Garland in the Oval Office, March 9, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama meets with Judge Merrick B. Garland in the Oval Office, March 9, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The question remains how all of this came into play. One possible explanation is that the image of Justices are guided by legal principles alone, has evolved into viewing them merely as politicians in robes. Such a shift could possibly have been evoked through recurrent framing by the media. Partisan channels are especially important here, because their viewers generally are politically active and more influential as compared to other groups within American society. This means that analyzing partisan outlets’ framing could offer great insight into the politicization of the Supreme Court.

Since partisan outlets tailor their coverage to align with specific ideological beliefs, one important question to ask is how these channels frame the Supreme Court when its decision does or does not reflect the channels’ ideological beliefs. To answer that question, I analyzed the news coverage of MSNBC and Fox News Channel (FNC) on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Obergefell v. Hodges, two highly polarizing decisions. The channels, as well as the rulings, can be described in terms of opposing poles on the ideological scale. While MSNBC and Obergefell could be considered as liberal, FNC and Hobby Lobby are conservative.

My findings show that the channels report the cases in an asymmetrical manner. This suggests that there is a correlation between how the Supreme Court is framed and whether the channel’s ideological leaning is reflected by the Court’s decision. The Court is framed in a politicized manner when the decision does not reflect the channel’s ideological beliefs, whereas the Court’s distinctiveness from political institutions is emphasized when the decision complies with the channels’ ideological views. This contrast is achieved through framing particular aspects of the Court, i.e. by emphasizing or omitting specific pieces of information in order to encourage interpreting and evaluating the decision and the Court itself according to specific ideological preferences. Hence, what I found was that both channels appeal to distinct ideological values and frame their messages in a way that reinforces and strengthens these values.

At the same time, however, those views that conflict with the political stances of each channel are opposed and marginalized. Although both channels include opinions contrary to theirs, it is argued that these are unreasonable as well as incompatible with the audience’s views. Moreover, the Court is often described as a divided institution than as an entity. Therefore, it is possible to further emphasize the ideological differences between the Justices and make the Court appear as a bipartisan institution.

The media exercises great control over the decision whether to frame the Court as an extension of the political branches, or to present its decisions as interpretations of the law and make them comprehensible to the public. Politicizing the Court has severe consequences for the Supreme Court’s appointment process as the political parties become more inclined to only consider nominees that reflect their own beliefs. The findings imply that the partisan divide, once only common to the political realm, has now also reached the judicial branch.

As a consequence, the Court’s legitimacy and independence are at risk, which are central to holding the balance between the three governmental branches and fundamental for a sense of stability in the American government.

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Lisa has just finished her Masters in North American Studies at the Freie University in Berlin, following an undergraduate degree in American and English Studies and General History. Alongside her studies, she was the Community Manager for PaperHive, a tech startup based in Berlin, and worked in Marketing for netpadrino. She is passionate about open science, community development, and issues relating to mental health. She recently published her Masters research with ScienceOpen as part of her ongoing commitment to open scholarly communications.

References

Matthias, L. (2016) Judicial Tyranny or American Justice?, ScienceOpen Research, 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-SOCSCI.AYUSLA.v1