By the Numbers: Americans Lack Confidence in the Legal System

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Regardless of party, elected officials need to address the public's growing concerns over civil justice.

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It's not news that most Americans have little trust in the political process. A poll taken just last month, for example, showed that only 13 percent of U.S. adults had much confidence in Congress.

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What is news is that Americans also have little trust in the legal system, the operating system of our Bill of Rights, the bedrock of our nation's commitment to "liberty and justice for all."

A new nationwide Clarus poll conducted in late June for Common Good, the nonpartisan government reform coalition, found deep distrust of the legal system across the board, with only 26 percent of voters believing our civil justice system provides timely and reliable resolution of disputes. That comes after a recent Gallup poll discovered merely 29 percent of Americans have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the criminal justice system.

The Clarus poll also revealed that only 6 percent of the electorate wants the civil justice system to stay as it is, while an overwhelming 92 percent want some sort of change.

These numbers should trouble Americans of all political stripes, and they should awaken elected officials, Democrats, and Republicans, to the deep dangers of what most voters view as a broken system.

Clearly, Americans sense something isn't working in our nation's courtrooms. That comes on top of well-documented public suspicion of political backrooms and corporate boardrooms. This massive lack of trust is not an esoteric issue to be discussed in law school seminars -- it is, instead, a fundamental problem in a diverse, expansive country that relies upon public confidence in its institutions for national stability.

Additional Clarus poll findings:

  • 86 percent of voters polled say they agree that there is an increasing tendency for Americans to threaten legal action and lawsuits when things go wrong.
  • 67 percent say that the time and trouble it takes to file a lawsuit discourages many people with legitimate cases from going to court.
  • 51 percent believe that people have become so fearful of frivolous lawsuits that they are discouraged from engaging in normal activities.
  • When asked whether the civil justice system needs to change the way it handles lawsuits, 53 percent say there is a need for either fundamental change or the complete rebuilding of the system. 39 percent say there should be minor changes, and only 6 percent say they want to keep the system as it is.
  • A solid majority of voters--74 percent--identified a possible solution: they believe judges should have the discretion to throw out civil claims without legal merit before they are allowed to go forward.

The Clarus poll was conducted June 21-25, 2012 with a sample of 1,000 self-identified registered voters and a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent. Interviews were conducted by live telephone calls, landline, and cell.

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Ron Faucheux is president of Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm based in Washington, D.C. More

Faucheux has written or edited seven books on politics and is an advocacy strategist, pollster, university lecturer, and a former two-term state legislator and state-cabinet official. He is on the faculty at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University. He received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, a law degree from LSU, and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of New Orleans, where he concentrated on voter behavior research. He edited and published Campaigns & Elections magazine for more than a decade. His popular daily newsletter, Lunchtime Politics, summarizes polling from around the nation.

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