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Opinions as the Voice of the Court: How State Supreme Courts Can Communicate Effectively and Promote Procedural Fairness

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2012
20 pages
This paper discusses the nature of and trends in the formation of State supreme court opinions and the methods by which opinions are communicated to the press, the public, members of the bar, and online communities.
Opinions serve as the court’s voice because rulings communicate not only to lawyers but also to the public and media and explain how courts resolve disputes and determine constitutional rights. This paper examines current practice in light of a field in social psychology called procedural fairness, a helpful and practical theory that explains what makes it likely that people are satisfied with and comply with decisions by authorities, such as judges. Findings from historical analysis and a State-by-State comparison show changes to State Supreme Court opinion length over time and the ramifications that court opinion complexity may have on public and media understanding. Included is a case study on same-sex marriage cases in California, which along with findings from a national survey, examine how the nation’s highest courts use diverse strategies to more effectively communicate opinions and encourage public understanding. Highlights show the State court trends, including the use of plain language and summarization, the use of websites for improved communication and dissemination of opinions, and the increase in educational opportunities for appellate bench officers to make opinions clearer and more effective. References

Date Published: January 1, 2012