Will of the People vs Will of the Law

The Effect of Public Opinion in Judicial Interpretation of the Law

The dilemma continues: how is public opinion influencing decisions of judges at both state and federal levels? In recent years, judges are finding it harder and harder to rule against the crushing weight of public pressure, even if the majority’s opinions aren’t in accordance with state and federal law. The impact is significant.

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Photo by Alexa Mazzarello on unsplash

As a result of the past half century, increasing polarization between political alignment and religious beliefs has left a volatile situation in which people become extremely emotionally charged. These are significant influences that can affect the presiding judicial interpretation and ability to sentence against what public opinion drifts toward. Judges are faced with the dilemma of following the law and doing what they see fit or buckling under the growing pressure out of fear of being ultimately recalled by those who elected them.

The undeniable influence of a loud majority group was demonstrated on a smaller scale in the fate of three Iowa judges in a 2009 ruling to legalize same sex marriage within the state. All three judges involved were recalled in 2010 by an extremely aggressive conservative movement that vehemently disagreed with judges’ constitutional interpretation of same sex marriage. Despite being recalled, Judge Streit still remains firm in his resolute that judges should still remain politically and religiously absent. However, Iowa District Court Judge Jeffrey Neary states that the days of simply ruling against the demands of the public with little explanation are gone. Judges often write extensive opinion papers on their rulings to hopefully avoid too much public scrutiny and escape being recalled for an unpopular decision.

In the past, the United States saw many rulings against public agenda particularly in cases surrounding the rights and privileges of minority groups. Another interesting aspect of these unpopular rulings is that to avoid greater opposition, the Supreme Court would intentionally vote without clear margins. This way the court could still appear to be leaning with the will of the majority, while still ultimately moving against it. However according to the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, the US today is still seeing a general trend from federal courts ruling in favor of the public majority.

Is public influence helping or hurting?

On the side of ruling in favor of the public majority, it could mean for US citizens that their values and wants are being consistently upheld, which is especially a positive if they feel that other areas of government aren’t representing them. However the negative side presents its own challenges. Supreme Court judges are meant to be ruling on behalf of the law and the Constitution and not on the behalf of public agenda, religion, and politics. The results of deviating from this process could shepherd inequitable sentencing due to anything being justified as constitutional or unconstitutional.

It seems that public opinion on politics and religious stances will continue to play a major role in the US’s judiciary decisions on both a state and federal level. Still, the question remains: should state and federal judges be representing the will of the people or the will of the law?

https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/judges-should-be-accountable-law-not-public-opinion

https://www.pulj.org/the-roundtable/public-opinion-and-judicial-interpretation

https://globegazette.com/news/iowa/ex-judge-public-pressure-will-affect-how-judges-do-jobs/article_b979ff10-f15c-11e0-9ecc-001cc4c03286.html
Notes from Judge Robert J. Kennedy