Separate Branches, Shared Responsibilities:

Highlights from an NCSC Public Opinion Survey

May 2009

On justice issues, bring all three branches to the table: Survey results suggest that the public wants all three branches of government to play “a big role” in addressing significant justice problems in their state (such as prison overcrowding and caring for abused and neglected children), while generally favoring the legislative branch to take the lead. The courts should have an equal seat at the table, Americans believe, with 59 percent supporting a “big role” for the courts in reducing prison overcrowding and 67 percent wanting the courts to have a “big role” in developing solutions to the problem of abused and neglected children. Nine in 10 Americans think it is important for the heads of the three branches to meet regularly to discuss justice system issues—including a striking 74 percent who are supportive of mandating such meetings by law.

Concerns about impact of budget cuts on justice: The American public thinks that courts should be provided enough money to function properly, with super majorities opposing four proposed budget measures many states are considering. A remarkable 85 percent oppose the cessation of jury trials, an option some courts have been forced to pursue on a temporary basis. More than four in five also opposed raising fees charged to those who want to bring cases to court.

On hot button issues, courts deserve final say: There is widespread public support for the principle of separation of power to give state supreme courts the final say in deciding controversial issues. Overall, more than two-thirds (71 percent) of Americans say their state supreme court should keep its ability to decide controversial issues, while only about a quarter (23 percent) feel its power should be restricted and it should not decide as many controversial issues as it does now. And 68 percent of Americans—more than two out of three—believe that the courts either have the appropriate amount of power or should be awarded even greater power; only 24 percent support giving the legislature and the governor more power over the courts. Self-identified Republicans expressed slightly higher confidence ratings (77 percent) in the courts than did Democrats (74 percent) or Independents (73 percent).

Knowledge about government drives support for courts: Americans most well informed about the basic mechanics of government express more confidence in the courts than they do in the other two branches of government. 83 percent of respondents who scored high on a six-question civics questionnaire expressed confidence in the courts, while only 65 percent were confident in the legislature, and only 62 percent in their governor. Those most knowledgeable are most likely to support the independence of the courts and to believe that the courts are making decisions in the best interest of the state.

About the survey: This survey of 1,200 American adults was conducted by Princeton Research Associates for the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent, 19 times out of 20. The poll was paid for by NCSC, the Pew Center on the States, and the State Justice Institute.

Read the full report.