FSU researchers receive NSF grant to explore citizen support for judicial institutions

FSU Associate Professor Amanda Driscoll.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant of more than $300,000 to Florida State University and Penn State University to learn more about citizens’ attitudes toward politicians who seek to change or disable the court system.

According to researchers, politicians in a number of countries frequently make attempts to politicize or undermine the judicial branch of government, such as “packing” court membership or reducing judicial ability to decide certain cases.

The research project, led by FSU Associate Professor Amanda Driscoll and Penn State Associate Professor Michael J. Nelson, is an extension of work the two have been conducting in the United States.

Their new project will look beyond U.S. borders to examine the electoral costs and benefits of attacks on the judiciary by incumbent politicians in 12 countries around the world.

“In democracies around the globe, independent courts are under attack,” Driscoll said. “Populist leaders in countries as diverse as Venezuela, the United States, Hungary, South Africa, Poland and Bolivia have recently proposed — and, in some cases, implemented —court-curbing proposals designed to undermine the institutional independence of the national high courts and curtail the institutional separation of powers.”

The two scholars seek to understand the conditions under which voters may be willing and able to punish incumbent politicians who take such actions, as well as how these actions may benefit the politicians who advance them.

“If these sorts of proposals actually mobilize some voters, this implies that incumbents might benefit electorally from attacking or trying to stack the courts,” Driscoll said.

The newly funded project will attempt to explain variations in support for judicial institutions in other countries as a function of citizens’ democratic values, support for incumbents, the political context in which they live and their satisfaction with judicial policymaking.

“Understanding the foundations and consequences of public support for democratic institutions is essential for building and maintaining the rule of law worldwide,” Driscoll said. “Beyond the study of the courts, we seek to understand if and when the public is willing to stand up to defend democratic institutions when incumbents try to ‘rewrite the rules’ to serve their own political ends.”

Beyond increased understanding of key political processes, an important impact of the project will be the provision of publicly available data on public support for judicial institutions in 12 countries throughout the world, the first of its kind in more than 25 years.

FSU will receive about 75 percent of the NSF grant funding. The support will allow the researchers to employ undergraduate and graduate research assistants at both universities, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups. They also plan to develop teaching modules for undergraduate courses using the data.

“We’re elated at the opportunity to expand and extend our ongoing work thanks to the support from the National Science Foundation,” Driscoll said. “The results of this research may prove critical in explaining democratization and democratic backsliding in countries around the world.”