The National Center for State Courts recently conducted a public opinion survey about the courts.
Probably the most important findings:
Public demand for more self-sufficiency highlights a path forward. Our last survey found a clear demand for greater use of technology to enable those dealing with the court system to find information they need on their own and to conduct more business with the courts remotely. This survey finds more of the same across multiple measures:
- 56 percent agree that ‘if at all possible, I would prefer to handle a problem myself rather than have a lawyer represent me.’
- But, by more than 2-to-1, Americans say the courts are not doing enough to empower regular people to navigate the court system without an attorney (63 to 29 percent)
- A plurality believe courts are not effectively using technology to improve their own operations or how they interact with people.’ (47 to 40 percent)
. . . [A]s courts seek to be more responsive to public concerns while also dealing with increasing caseloads and tight budgets, technological advances offer clear potential to alleviate demands on court employees and resources over time, as well as address customer concerns about costs and the hassle of interacting with the courts.
The survey once again confirmed lack of trust in the racial and economic fairness of the courts, and again showed a huge racial gap in perceptions, but, interestingly, no racial gap in views of the Supreme Court or of the Federal Courts. In other words everyone, white and non-white has equally negative views of those courts, I suspect because all groups are angry with the Federal Courts (but for very different reasons), but non-whites are less happy with state courts, often for more or less the same reasons.
The results, particularly for those who had had exposure to state courts, showed relatively positive procedural fairness scores (70% of this directly exposed population were “satisfied with the fairness of the process”. I do not know if this apparent inconsistency reflects a perception that the unfairness comes from an understanding of the mismatch in legal firepower, or an understanding that the substantive rules are unfair, or a recognition that courts are trying to be fair within those rules, or what. I suspect that the procedural fairness results are driven more by actual experience, and the substantive unfairness results are driven more by the much broader media narrative, including on judicial elections. (A question on where people get their opinions and information might be helpful in the future.)
In any event, this research has huge implications for the 100% access campaign.
- It underlines that the public has already internalized that as a goal and value
- It means that publicizing the Chiefs’ Resolution, the goal, and progress in moving towards it, will help the courts with their political and budget battles
- It suggests that an emphasis on self-represented services and accessibility is seen as a very positive value for changes in the courts
- It constitutes a directive to do more in this area.
Interestingly, there was stronger support (60%) for courts “need[ing] to do a better job of adopting new technologies to break down barriers between the public and the courts,” than there was (49%)for “need[ing] to completely revamp how they operate.” I suspect that the lack of specificity as to what was meant by “revamp” may have driven this result. But it does suggest that all descriptions for innovation be accompanied by an explanation, however brief, of how they preserve and expand access and neutrality.
I would hope that in the future we will get much better data on how to talk most effectively about these innovations, and particularly about the need for any resources.