The Effect of Legal Expert Commentary on Lay Judgments of Judicial Decision Making


  • Dan Simon,

  • Nicholas Scurich

Address correspondence to Dan Simon, Gould School of Law, University of Southern California, 699 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90089-0071; email:


The public's view of the judiciary is a key factor in the legitimacy of any legal system. Ideally, popular judgments of the adjudicative branch would be independent of the outcomes of the decisions it furnishes. In a previous study (Simon & Scurich 2011), we found that lay people's evaluations of the judicial decision-making process were highly contingent on the decision outcomes. Participants gave favorable evaluations of the judges and their decisions when they agreed with the judges' outcomes, but reported negative evaluations when they disagreed with them. These results held true across four different types of judicial reasoning, and despite the fact that all decisions were described as having followed proper procedures and been argued by competent lawyers. That study left open the possibility that the public's judgments might be moderated by professional elites, namely, legal experts. Indeed, in real life, much of the public's information about judicial decisions is derived from legal experts who communicate and comment on them in the media. This study examined the effect of professional commentators on lay people's judgments of judicial decision making. We found that the experts' commentaries do not alter participants' evaluations of the courts' decisions, as the evaluations continue to be influenced strongly by the participants' agreement with the outcomes of the judges' decisions. Moreover, lay people's reactions to the experts follow a similar pattern: the experts are deemed competent and their commentaries are deemed reliable when the participants agree with the outcomes propounded by the experts, but the opposite is true when the participants' preferred outcomes are incongruent with the outcomes endorsed by the experts. These findings suggest that the outcome-dominated judgments of courts cannot easily be tempered by professional elites. This conclusion could also provide some insight into the dynamic process that enables political polarization.