How Should Courts Handle Cultural Dissensus on Summary Judgment?

That’s the deep question unanswered by last year’s Supreme Court decision, Scott v. Harris. As Dan Kahan announced here on Balkin, he, current guest-blogger Don Braman, and I have written a paper testing the majority’s view that no reasonable jury could or would find for the plaintiff after watching this videotape. The experiment we conducted was simple and intuitive: we showed the video to a 1,350 member subject pool and asked them about it. Our first circulating draft, Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe? An Empirical (and Normative) Assessment of Scott v. Harris, can be downloaded here.

Overall, we found substantial support for the Court’s position: most members of the subject pool agreed with the majority about the risks posed by the police chase, the relative fault of the parties, and the ultimate questions of justification. But does majority support mean SJ is correct? Our thought was that that question can’t be meaningfully answered without some understanding of the characteristics of the minority of people who would disagree with the court. We wanted to identify who those people were and figure out whether there was any explanation that might explain their differing view of the tape besides that they are unreasonable. In particular, we wanted to test the hypothesis, grounded in cultural cognition theory, that the dissenters would not be random statistical outliers but persons disposed by shared cultural values and other characteristics to process visual information in the tape different from how the majority did.

ronOur results showed exactly that. Dissenters to the Court’s view of the facts and the appropriateness of summary judgment were linked by shared cultural styles that features a commitment to egalitarianism and communitarianism. By the same token, subjects who were strongly inclined to see things the Court’s way were linked by commitments to hierarchy and individualism.

Drawing on Joseph Gusfield’s work on “status collectivities,” we imagined four potential members of the venire: Pat, Ron, Linda, and Bernie. You can see their pictures to the left. Ron is a rich Goldwater republican from Arizona. Bernie is a socialist professor from Vermont with average income. Linda a social worker from Philadelphia, whose income is also at the mean. And Pat is the average American in every respect.

Using statistical simulations, we found that these individuals would have very different reactions to the video, based on their distinct forms of culturally motivated cognition of the risks involved. Take, for example, subjects’ reaction to the statement “[t]he danger that Harris’s driving posed to the police and the public justified Officer Scott’s decision to end the chase in a way that put Harris’s own life in danger.” The graphic below illustrates how Ron, Linda, Bernie and Pat will respond.

New Picture.jpg

At least three-fifths (64%, +/- 4%) of the persons who share Linda’s characteristics “disagree”—about one-half either strongly or moderately—with the statement and thus the result in Scott. Those who hold Bernie’s characteristics see things in nearly exactly the same way as those holding Linda’s. Pat does agree with the Scott majority, although not without a bit of equivocation. There is a 60% (+/- 3%) chance that a person drawn randomly from the population would either moderately or strongly agree that the police were justified in using deadly force. There is, however, a 16% (+/- 3%) chance that he/she would be only “slightly” inclined to agree, and over a 20% chance that he/she would conclude upon watching the tape that use of deadly force was unreasonable. Finally, over 80% of the individuals who share Ron’s characteristics would find that the police acted reasonably.

What does dissensus of this character mean for how courts should resolve summary judgment motions in cases like, and unlike Scott? When minorities of the venire would process visual information in particular way, but that minority sees things the way they do because they are linked by values?

I’ll explore these questions in subsequent posts (as will, I think, Don.)

Previous Posts:

Hoffman, The Death of Fact-finding and the Birth of Truth

Crocker, Do Texts Speak for Themselves?

Kerr, What Are the Facts in Scott v. Harris?

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2 Responses

  1. Fascinating, and the extensions to jury selection are pretty clear.

  2. Matt Bodie says:

    You know, Bernie looks an awful lot like Yochai Benkler. If you have a Bernie from Vermont, maybe you should consider this image: