Get the Word Out. The Formation and Political Impact of Judicial Opinion-Writing

Research question/goal: 

How do courts exercise political power through opinion-writing? To understand the influence of courts, current research focuses on the result of judicial decisions; namely, a referral by a plaintiff is either justified or not justified. This project applies a broader perspective on the influence of judicial opinions. Instead of focusing on the general result it is necessary to account for the substantive variance in opinion-writing.
The goal of this project is to use established and novel methods of automated text analysis to map content-related aspects of judicial decisions to put them in perspective to public perception. For example, access to judicial opinions may be easy or difficult, depending on the use of either simple content-related words or technical jargon specific to a field. Easily accessible opinions are noticed by a larger audience compared to complex opinions that are difficult to process in the media. This implies that judges can influence media coverage through opinion-writing and this determines to which extent judicial decisions receive public attention. Public attention should not only be observed in traditional media outlets, but also in the way citizens talk about judicial decisions in social media.  
Consequently, judicial opinions are a strategic instrument assuming that judges do not generate text by chance. On the one hand, judges develop arguments strategically to influence social developments. On the other hand, judges are limited by the political environment, and therefore have to strategically change their arguments.
Text is at the core of every judicial opinion, regardless of the political or legal system. Therefore, if opinions can be analyzed automatically, then the societal influence of courts in different systems can be compared using the same methods. To illustrate this, this project analyzes publicly available decisions made by the German Federal Constitutional Court, the US Supreme Court, and the French Conseil Constitutionnel. The three courts differ in part in their structure, their degree of politicization, and the extent to which they make decisions. By comparing the three courts, this project develops a better understanding of judicial opinion formation in fundamentally different systems. This is important, as courts resolve controversial political and societal issues.

Fact sheet

Funding: 
MZES
Duration: 
2020 to 2024
Status: 
in preparation
Data Sources: 
Full text of court decisions by supreme or constitutional courts, media content
Geographic Space: 
Germany, United States of America, France

Publications