The Influence of Public Sentiment on Supreme Court Opinion Clarity

Ryan C. Black, Ryan J. Owens, Justin Wedeking, Patrick C. Wohlfarth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


We examine whether public opinion leads Supreme Court justices to alter the content of their opinions. We argue that when justices anticipate public opposition to their decisions, they write clearer opinions. We develop a novel measure of opinion clarity based on multifaceted textual readability scores, which we validate using human raters. We examine an aggregate time series analysis of the influence of public mood on opinion clarity and an individual-level sample of Supreme Court cases paired with issue-specific public opinion polls. The empirical results from both models show that justices write clearer opinions when their rulings contradict popular sentiment. These results suggest public opinion influences the Court, and suggest that future scholarship should analyze how public opinion influences the written content of decision makers’ policies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)703-732
Number of pages30
JournalLaw and Society Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Law and Society Association

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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