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New Research: Effective Messaging to Protect State Courts

On March 1, 2022, the team at the Piper Fund, an initiative of the Proteus Fund, released a new report and guide, Justice Not Politics: Effective Messaging to Protect State Courts.

The guide is informed by what the Piper Fund and Goodwin Simon Strategic Research learned when they conducted focus groups and a series of polls to understand questions like: What’s the public’s perception of separation of powers? How strongly do they support judicial independence at the state level? What are the most compelling arguments to use if someone refuses to follow court orders? Do these arguments differ based on someone’s gender, race, or political affiliation?

Kathy Bonnifield, Senior Program Officer and lead on this project, shares her reflections:

Today, we find American democracy is in a precarious position. People’s trust in the systems that serve as the foundation of our governance — one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy — is at a dangerously low level. Meanwhile, we find that bad or misguided actors relentlessly seek to erode the trust that remains, telling us we shouldn’t put our faith in systems that are ‘broken’ or ‘rigged.’

The complicated reality for those of us advocating to secure the independence of the court system is that we recognize that parts of the system are, in fact, in desperate need of reform. At the same time, we also recognize having broken windows doesn’t mean you burn down your entire house — you fix the windows. That said, communicating this concept — that protecting the independence of courts and improving the court system are not mutually exclusive ideas — can be extremely challenging when faced with opponents who easily lean into fear and uncertainty to sow doubt and distrust.

So, how can we effectively build support for an independent judiciary while also communicating about ways we need to improve the system? The findings and research-based recommendations in this guide shine some promising light on effective messaging that resonates with our audience. The guide also highlights messaging that does not work or, importantly, may inadvertently place us within our opponents’ frame — giving them a strategic advantage in the conversation.

What I find encouraging from the research is that while people’s trust in our foundational systems may shift, the core values they hold — values such as equal access to justice, fairness, impartiality, the ability to have a fair hearing in court and resolve disputes, and the ability to decide cases objectively based on the evidence — have not shifted. This research shows us that our ability to tap into this shared set of values can serve as a powerful point of connection, providing opportunities to calm our audience’s anxieties and fill their information gaps. Also, while this issue may be complex and esoteric in many ways, once our audience engages on the important role of state courts — and the importance and value of judicial independence, separation of powers, and checks and balances — they do want to do something to protect them. The research shows that when messaging is effective and addresses our audience’s concerns, it enables them to be open to considering reforms that improve the courts, rather than measures that would cede their independence and control to other branches of government.

The opposition has spent decades and a tremendous level of resources to research, develop, and hone their communications. It has worked, and because of that we have a lot of catching up to do. I hope this research and this guide help to show that while behind, we are not out — that effective messages, delivered by a mix of messengers representing a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, can engage our audience in an aspirational vision of what the courts should be, and can be — with their support.

A sincere thank you to our advisory group who provided input and feedback throughout each stage of the research. Their expertise and experience in the field helped to strengthen our research process and to develop this guide to be practical and useful for a broad range of advocates.

In February, the PACE community was lucky to receive a sneak peak of the research as the Piper Fund team prepared to release the findings and the guide. There were three points we noted as hopeful, reinforced by Kathy’s reflections above:

  • Education works. Across the board, favorability of select messaging terms increased as respondents were exposed to more messaging.
  • Politics is not bigger than justice. When looking at favorability of select messaging terms by both race & gender and party ID & ideology, “justice, not politics” shoots to the top overall after exposure to messaging, indicating that a commitment to the value of justice is still alive for the American public, even as our politics heats up.
  • There is broad agreement around diversity in the courts. Eighty-nine percent of respondents say it is important to them that their state courts, including the state Supreme Court, are made up of judges who are representative of the communities they serve. While that is good news, it should also be noted that the survey found agreement diminish when the actual word diversity (versus the concept of diversity) was introduced given the pre-existing associations with the term.

PACE thanks the Piper Fund for leading this effort, releasing this report, and working to strengthen democracy. We encourage everyone to read it and use the guide for effective messaging as a tool to support your work.




Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.

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Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)

A network of foundations and funders committed to civic engagement and democratic practice. Visit our publication at:

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