News: Many Australians say they ‘don’t know’ whether or not Australia’s High Court freed OJ Simpson

“[F]ew Australians outside the law schools are likely to be able to name the Chief Justice, let alone the puisne Justices of the High Court”, Justice Virginia Bell said in 2017. And she’s right, according to a survey of roughly 500 Australians performed later that year, now published in the Federal Law Review (open access draft available here.) Between 82 and 92% of the participants (all recruited by a market research company from existing panels) didn’t come within cooee of identifying the occupations of each of the seven current justices, with Kiefel CJ and Nettle J the best known and Edelman J the least, scoring no better than US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Robert, fictional US President Selina Meyer and 1960s Australian Chief Justice Owen Dixon. More Australians could identify the occupation of Judy Sheindlin (TV’s Judge Judy) than any current High Court justice. Several identified both Susan Kiefel and Virginia Bell as New Zealand’s Prime-Minister, Stephen Gageler as Australia’s Treasurer and Geoffrey Nettle as either a Victorian judge (which he once was) or the Governor-General (which he isn’t yet.) On the other hand, one respondent correctly identified Patrick Keane as the AFL’s (then) Media Relations Manager. More Australians thought the High Court had only one female judge than three, but – as in all the survey questions – many more said they just didn’t ‘know’.

The justices’ identities are one thing, but their work is another. In November 2017, over 60% of respondents were aware of the High Court’s recent decisions on federal MPs’ eligibility and the same-sex marriage poll, but fewer (mainly Victorian) respondents knew about its decision on the validity of Julian Knight’s one-man parole law. Somewhat disturbingly, however, around three-quarters answered ‘don’t know’ to the questions ‘Do you know if, in the last 12 months, the High Court has made decisions on’ either the legality of capital punishment or the validity of OJ Simpson’s conviction for armed robbery. This may indicate considerable confusion about the High Court’s role and jurisdiction (not to mention the status of OJ’s robbery conviction), but it could also be due to the rather oddly worded question put to the participants or to a phenomenon described by Scott Alexander where queries about beliefs in dubious facts tend to be overwhelmed by ‘noise’, such as confused or joke answers. (Neilsen and Smyth say they excluded around 15 participants for giving answers – such as nominating Bill Shorten’s occupation as ‘goofball’ or writing ‘who cares?’ in some responses – which were deemed not ‘considered’.)

It is clear enough that the identity and work of the High Court of Australia’s justices is not well known by the public in their jurisdiction, something they share in common with the United States Supreme Court (according to many similar surveys detailed by Neilsen and Smyth) and no doubt most other apex courts. But is this a bad thing? In her 2017 speech, Bell J said:

It is undeniable that some decisions of the High Court have a significant impact on our society. The reason I suggest why the community is uninterested in the judges who make these decisions is because of an unstated acceptance that the decisions are made on legal merit and not on the political or ideological sympathies of the judge.

Neilsen and Smyth however, disagree, citing the authors of a US study: ‘Simply put, to know courts is to love them, because to know them is to be exposed to a series of legitimizing messages focused on the symbols of justice, judicial objectivity, and impartiality.’

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About Jeremy Gans

Jeremy Gans is a Professor in Melbourne Law School, where he researches and teaches across all aspects of the criminal justice system. He holds higher degrees in both law and criminology. In 2007, he was appointed as the Human Rights Adviser to the Victorian Parliament's Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee.

8 thoughts on “News: Many Australians say they ‘don’t know’ whether or not Australia’s High Court freed OJ Simpson

  1. It is interesting, then, to see the current focus upon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the United States. Definitely an outlier in terms of the public’s knowledge of, and interest in, members of the judiciary.

      • I suspect knowledge of Michael Kirby has declined given his relatively quiet retirement. Even then, I suspect the public was largely unaware of him during his time on the High Court.

        Dyson Heydon is probably another example of a High Court judge who enjoyed some fleeting… er… notoriety… after his career on the bench.

  2. Jeremy, my dear fellow…is it important that people know that when they feel some mental or emotional distress they can raise it with their GP for starters and perhaps get further services? Yes, it is vital. Is it important they know about the psychiatric profession, how is it governed, about various schools of psychotherapy and how various drugs are thought to work? Not really. Is it important that citizens can get good quality, affordable services from a local solicitor -yes; that they know about the function of the High Court and its personnel – not really.

    Sorry to say, but your post is really just an exercise in self-flattery. A relatively pardonable and benign exercise in professional conceit, but conceit nonetheless. And, granted, so is my reply.

    • I did intend to take a neutral stance on the question of whether knowledge of the High Court matters. (I’m less neutral about whether knowledge of OJ Simpson’s criminal record matters though.) Didn’t I succeed?

      • As a law student I subscribe to “Opinions on High,” and similar blogs and sites; however what I find troubling and frustrating is that I am not taught the identities of the Courts, whether HIgh, Supreme or Magistrates; or their Judges and Lords, ‘et al.’ This is an issue that draws attention to the ongoing cultural divide in Australia of being familiar with the laws of other countries and their identities, such as the American Constitution we have all heard so much about, but who knows about the Australian constitution? Many Australians don’t even know we have one. I could go on, ‘who knows anything at all about our former Prime Ministers? Back before Fraser (pre 80’s). Australian law, history, etc is not well taught in schools and universities. There is a predominant focus on Europe and American interests which always leaves me with the feeling of Australia as having no identity and it could be said, there is also the loss of state sovereignty due to trade deals and also the sale of farmland into foreign interests. I prefer the courts to the tribunal myself because I can become familiar with who is doing what, but often I don’t even know who the presiding magistrate is when I go in there on assignment for case law, and no one will tell me when I sit and ask. No one cares, it is not well known or defined.

    • I think there is a difference between the medical profession and the judiciary.

      The judiciary is an arm of the government, under which all citizens live. The medical profession, whilst important and a necessity, is a service industry.

      I think a basic level of civic knowledge is important. Whether this extends to knowing the name of High Court judges is debatable. But I think it is beyond argument that the general level of civic knowledge in Australia is very poor.

      What would be more interesting would be a comparative study. Are Australians more or less informed now than they were in, e.g. 1970? or 1930? Would anyone have heard of Chief Justice Gavan Duffy when he was in office?

      I guess we will never know the answer to that question.

  3. The Australian Constitution Centre opened in the High Court building in April 2018 and a very useful website went online later that year – see https://www.australianconstitutioncentre.org.au. Further enhancements to the Centre, the website and educational programs are underway by the Constitution Education Fund Australia in collaboration with the Court (see http://www.cefa.org.au). While the initial focus of these initiatives has been on years 5 and 6 students, integrated with the Court’s well-established school visits program, the longer term aim is to increase overall public understanding and appreciation of the Constitutional framework of Australia. While I suspect that there will always be some who would believe that Susan Kiefel or Virginia Bell is the Prime Minister of New Zealand, one would hope that public understanding and appreciation of the role and work of the Court will continue to increase through the implementation of the above mentioned initiatives and the continuation of the various public information initiatives implemented by the Court.

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