Political Hearings Reinforce Legal Norms: Confirmation Hearings and Views of the United States Supreme Court

AuthorChristopher N. Krewson
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2022 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221094877
How do modern judicial confirmation hearings influence
public views of the Supreme Court?1 The political nature
of the appointment process has led some to believe that
judicial confirmation hearings fundamentally alter peo-
ple’s perceptions of the Court, leading them to treat it
simply as another political body of government. With a
few limited exceptions, however, empirical research on
the consequences of modern judicial confirmation hear-
ings is lacking. We know little about whether confirma-
tion hearings damage the Supreme Court’s essential
reservoir of goodwill and the extent to which they lead
the public to treat the judicial branch like any other politi-
cal branch of government. Meanwhile, the politics sur-
rounding the confirmation process grow in intensity and
regularity. With much at stake, it is essential to test claims
regarding the costs and benefits of judicial confirmation
hearings empirically.
Consistent with work on positivity bias theory (e.g.,
Gibson and Caldeira 2009a), I argue that the politics satu-
rating modern judicial confirmation hearings harm the
Court’s legitimacy. That is because language and events
that associate the Court with regular politics (i.e.,
political symbolism) can undermine or even overwhelm
the legal symbols which typically protect the Court’s
perceived legitimacy (Gibson and Caldeira 2011).
Furthermore, I argue that the negative effect of political
symbolism on perceived legitimacy is filtered through
partisanship. While Democratic elites attacked the Court
as political during Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation
hearings (and co-partisan respondents were easily per-
suaded), Republican elites claimed that these attacks
were baseless, and that the Court continues to function as
a legal institution. Invoking legal symbolism to describe
the Court, Republican elites persuaded Republican
respondents to maintain their view of the Court and reject
out-partisan accusations that the Court had been acting
94877PRQXXX10.1177/10659129221094877Political Research QuarterlyKrewson
1Department of Political Science, Brigham Young University, Provo,
Corresponding Author:
Christopher N. Krewson, Department of Political Science, Brigham
Young University, 742 KMBL, Provo, UT 84602-0002, USA.
Email: chris_krewson@byu.edu
Political Hearings Reinforce Legal
Norms: Confirmation Hearings and
Views of the United States Supreme
Christopher N. Krewson1
Does the political nature of modern judicial confirmation hearings lead the public to think of the Supreme Court as a
political body? Some political actors inevitably attack the institution during a confirmation hearing—which should lead
to a decrease in support for it—but they attack the Court for acting extra-judicially. More generally, confirmation
hearings send the American public an important and universal message: that the Supreme Court at least ought to
be a legal institution. Based on original panel data closely surrounding the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court
nominee Amy Coney Barrett, I find that confirmation hearings lead the public to place greater value on the non-
political characteristics of a judge. While Supreme Court legitimacy reduced among Democrats over the course of the
hearings, all respondents (including Democrats) became more likely to emphasize the importance of the legal qualities
in a judge. For Democrats, the data suggests these two processes (reduced legitimacy and increased emphasis on a
judge’s legal characteristics) worked independently. For Republicans—and consistent with positivity bias theory—
enhanced legitimacy was predicted by a decrease in focus on the political aspects of a judge over the course of the
confirmation hearing.
Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings, Supreme Court Legitimacy, Legal Norms
2023, Vol. 76(1) 418–431

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