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Supreme Court Decisions and Public Opinion Examined in New Book Co-Edited by NYU Political Scientist

March 17, 2008
N-336, 2007-2008

Brown v. Board of Education. Roe v. Wade. Bush v. Gore. Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. With these and other high-impact rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has placed itself at the center of many of the most important political controversies of our time. How do Americans respond to these decisions? Does the public accept the High Court as the final arbiter in the “Culture Wars”? Or do such rulings lead to a backlash in public opinion?

In a book released this month, NYU political scientist Patrick J. Egan and his collaborators answer these vital questions about the impact of Supreme Court rulings on American public opinion. Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy (Oxford University Press) traces the trajectory of public opinion on more than a dozen issues addressed by the Supreme Court-including desegregation, school prayer, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, gay rights, assisted suicide, and national security. Egan, an assistant professor in New York University’s Wilf Family Department of Politics, edited the book with Columbia University School of Law Professor Nathaniel Persily and Jack Citrin, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Pundits and politicians on both the left and right make all kinds of declarations about what the Supreme Court does and what Americans want,” said Egan, an expert on American public opinion. “Our book takes an objective, comprehensive look at these claims. The real story is almost always more complicated than what commentators would lead you to believe.”

Among the book’s findings:

  • American public opinion on abortion was becoming steadily more liberal until the Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. After the ruling, this trend stopped dead in its tracks. The youngest generation of Americans-those born after Roe v. Wade-now holds the most conservative views on abortion.
  • Surveys prior to the Court’s 2003 decision striking down state bans on gay sex (Lawrence v. Texas) found a solid majority of the public in favor of decriminalization. But in the explosive controversy over same-sex marriage that followed the decision, polling indicated that a substantial proportion of Americans changed their mind.
  • Americans reacted negatively to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) that those detained by police must be informed of their constitutional rights. But four decades later, most Americans accept “Miranda warnings” as an integral part of the criminal justice process.

Reporters interested in speaking with Egan should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or james.devitt@nyu.edu.
Reviewers and journalists who would like a review copy of Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy should contact Catherine Hui, marketing manager for Oxford University Press, at 212.726.6190 or catherine.hui@oup.com.

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Graduate School of Arts and Science

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