Is Public Opinion of State Courts Improving? The NCSC Cites ‘Cautious Optimism’

public confidence in state courts, Building column on a government building with a beautiful blue sky.

A recent survey of the public by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) “provides some cautious optimism” about improving public confidence in state courts across the U.S.

For the first time since 2019, public confidence in state courts increased slightly, according to the State of the State Courts study, which was conducted for the NCSC by GBAO Strategies.

GBAO surveyed 1,000 registered voters and held focus groups in Chicago; Arlington, Virginia; Phoenix, Arizona; and virtually.

Sixty-one percent of respondents in 2023 said they have either a great deal of confidence or some confidence in state courts, up slightly from the 2022 survey (60%).

Respondents also indicated a rebound in support for remote proceedings, which had decreased in 2021 at the height of  “Zoom fatigue” related to the pandemic.

In 2023, 74% of respondents said they would use video conferencing if it was available for jury duty or for undergoing screening for jury selection. This number was 60% in 2021.

State courts are the most trusted judicial institution

State courts ranked only second to local police departments (76%) in the percentage of respondents who said they have confidence in the specific government institution. At 61% confidence, state courts also ranked above the U.S. federal court system (57%), U.S. Supreme Court (54%), state legislatures (59%), and governors (55%).

Importantly, respondents from across political divides indicated similar confidence in the state court system (56% liberal, 65% moderate, 61% conservative), which was not the case for the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court had only 27% confidence from liberal voters compared to 75% from conservative voters.

A majority of respondents (51%) also rated state courts’ job performance as “excellent or good,” up two points from 2022, and most respondents viewed state courts as “hard working” and “fair and impartial.”

Demographic differences in perceptions of state courts

White, college-educated, and older respondents rated the job performance of state courts “significantly higher” than voters of color, non-college graduates, and younger voters, GBAO found.

While the number of respondents who said state courts are improving in terms of their commitment to protecting individual and civil rights, treating people with dignity and respect, and unbiased case decisions, among other categories, GBAO noted that work still needs to be done on “bias and equal justice.”

For example, Black respondents were much less likely than white or Hispanic respondents to have favorable opinions of the state courts on points such as fairness and impartiality, providing “equal justice to all,” and being “a good investment of taxpayer dollars.”

Moreover, all respondents by 2-to-1 described their state court system as political, GBAO found.

Despite these differences, three-quarters of respondents who have experiences with the court said they were satisfied with the fairness of the process. Black voters were only slightly less likely (68%) to say the courts are fair compared to white (77%) or Hispanic (74%) voters.

Other items NCSC measured

Here are some other interesting items the NCSC survey measured:

  • More respondents (including seniors) are open to interacting with the court remotely than in years past. This increase spanned categories like serving on a remote jury, participating in an arbitration or mediation virtually, and appearing remotely for a case.
  • Younger audiences are getting their news from sources other than the traditional (i.e., local television stations), meaning courts should consider leveraging social and other new media sources to communicate with this audience.

Illinois Judicial Branch’s work to advance FAIR courts

The Illinois Judicial Branch is dedicated to improving the delivery of justice and its service to the public. One way it’s doing so is through its Strategic Agenda, which lays out the Branch’s mission and vision, core values, and strategic goals. The core values center on Fairness, Accountability, Integrity, and Respect, or FAIR.

In the 2022-2025 Strategic Agenda, the Strategic Goals focus on leveraging data to drive innovation and transformation in the Judicial Branch, to better serve court users.

The Goals are: Accessible Justice and Equal Protection Under the Law; Fair, Timely, and Efficient Courts; Professionalism and Accountability Throughout the Judicial Branch; Understanding of, and Confidence in, the Judicial Branch; and Funding and Use of Judicial Branch Resources.

Currently, the Illinois Judicial Conference, in collaboration with judicial officers, court personnel, and justice system partners, is working to actualize these Strategic Goals.

Or, as Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis wrote, “to think beyond day-to-day problems, anticipate and plan for the future and effectively allocate and use limited resources to improve the delivery of justice and better serve the public.”

You can find the IJC’s plan for doing so here.

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