The Effects of Judicial Decisions on Public Support for Same-Sex Marriage
Kevin Orszak Senior Honors Thesis NYU Politics Department 2011
In the United States today, same-sex marriage remains one of the most hotlycontested social issues. Ask anyone, for or against same-sex marriage, and they will tellyou a lot is at stake: whether it’s the sanctity of marriage or equal rights for LGBT people. In the wake of referenda such as Proposition 8 in California and Question 1 in Maine, which overturned legalized same-sex marriage, the sheer power of public opinion is evident. Furthermore, over half of the states where same-sex marriage is currently legal, this policy was the product of state supremecourt decisions. In this study, I aim to investigate how court decisions affect public opinion. Do decisions legalizing same-sex marriage result in a backlash that is ultimately detrimental to the LGBT rights movement? Or do people look to elite institutions like state supreme courts to form their opinions? Is this the same for court decisions that deny equal marital rights to LGBT couples? Theseare some questions I hope to answer with this study. I also aim to investigate how different demographic groups react to such a decision. Do the highly educated respond in a different manner to same-sex marriage decisions from the lesser educated? Do liberals react differently than conservatives? I hope to address these questions, as well, in my study. Existing studies have made their conclusionsbased on states that had generally high support for same-sex marriage at the time of the decision (such as Massachusetts). Now that more time has passed, there is a broader range of states that have legalized same-sex marriage via the courts, allowing for a more varied look at how the public responds to these decisions.
Despite the numerous studies regarding aggregate and individual-level opinion responses to court decisions, a complete consensus has not emerged amongst political science scholars. This is likely due to the complexity and variance of such public opinion responses. In many cases, demographic groups react in different ways to a decision (Johnson and Martin 1998) and, often court decisionssee completely different responses issue to issue (Egan and Citrin). Both of these findings suggest that there can be no universal rule that governs how aggregate public opinion will change in response to a decision. However, to structure a more nuanced theory, it is important to review the more universal theories of public opinion response and the past studies that have employed them. Oneprominent theory is the legitimation hypothesis. This is the theory that, following the passing of a judicial decision, public opinion will shift towards the court’s opinion (Hoekstra 1995). The legitimation hypothesis puts forth the idea that people turn to elite institutions to affirm or repudiate their own opinions on a given issue. Furthermore, people often take cues from institutional organizationsto form their opinions, such as conforming one’s own opinions to that of one’s political party or a trusted judiciary. Both the elite opinion leadership and heuristic approaches support the legitimation hypothesis. Valerie Hoekstra tested this theory in her 1995 study, “The Supreme Court and Opinion Change: An Experimental Study of the Court’s Ability to Change Opinion.” The study was centeredaround a controlled survey of 135 SUNY Stony Brook students studying social sciences. Each was given an article to read on an issue referencing action taken by the Supreme Court, Congress, or a nonpartisan think tank. The
4 students’ opinions on the given issue were surveyed before and after reading the article to see if learning of the Supreme Court’s decision had any effect on their stance on...