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U.S. Supreme Court Justices and Public Mood
Journal of Law & Politics (2014)
  • Isaac Unah, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Does public mood influence the decisions of U.S. Supreme Court Justices? Under what conditions might Justices vote against their typical ideological leanings and in favor of public opinion? We employ both quantitative and qualitative methods to address these questions. For the quantitative portion, logistic regression analysis indicates a strong relationship between public mood and Supreme Court Justices’ votes both in the aggregate and for a number of liberal and conservative Justices individually during the 1946 to 2011 Court terms. Justices respond less strongly to public opinion when the Court is highly polarized and when legal issues to be decided are highly politically salient. For the qualitative portion, we examine Justice Harry Blackmun’s personal papers in the Library of Congress for evidence of an apparent “switch” from an attitudinal posture to a public mood posture. We find four cases in which he made such a switch: Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, Pennsylvania Central Transportation v. New York City, and Maine v. Thibotout. We also examine closely Justice Thurgood Marshall’s normative views on judicial neutrality and the role of public opinion on judging. Our research demonstrates the enduring power of popular influences in the Supreme Court, showing that despite public and scholarly reports about growing ideological intransigence in the Court, the public holds significant sway over the decisions of individual members of the nation’s Highest Court.
  • Judicial Decision Making,
  • Public Mood,
  • Justice Harry Blackmun
Publication Date
Spring March, 2014
Citation Information
Isaac Unah, Kristen Rosano, K. Dawn Milam. "U.S. Supreme Court Justices and Public Mood" (2015) Journal of Law & Politics, vol 30 Issue#3. Forthcoming. Available at: