Benjamin Engst, David M. Grundmanns, Thomas Gschwend
Give them the word, they sharpen the sword - How high courts use language to exert political and societal power

11th Annual Meeting of the European Political Science Association, (virtual conference), June 24th to June 25th, 2021

Courts exercise political power through opinion-writing. To ensure political compliance with decisions judges activate public support. According to the literature, features external to decision-making -- e.g., holding hearings or publishing press releases -- are sufficient to activate support. From this perspective the substantive content of opinions becomes irrelevant which is implausible: If the content were irrelevant to the public, then there were no reason to hold political actors accountable. However, judges primarily influence political and societal processes through opinion-writing. Thus, how do courts shape publicity through substantive opinion-writing?We argue that courts use linguistic instruments adjusting their opinion-writing to influence publicity. Judges can choose to write in comprehensible ways to mobilize a broad audience or they can write in less comprehensible ways to mobilize a narrow audience. To assess the argument we analyze vagueness and readability as linguistic instruments of Senate decisions made by the German Federal Constitutional Court. Vagueness is linked to the precision in word-choice and readability to the complexity of sentences. Findings show that the publication of press releases and other media outcomes are a function of the way vagueness and readability are combined by the Court. Thus, courts exercise political power through opinion-writing tailoring the substantive content to different audiences. This has major implications for understanding the substantive political impact of high courts and enhances our ability to map the action repertoire available to judges in decision-making.