Reassessing the Supreme Court: How Decisions and Negativity Bias Affect Legitimacy

AuthorDavid M. Glick,Dino P. Christenson
Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18lcqoQG2mX5sd/input 794906PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918794906Political Research QuarterlyChristenson and Glick
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(3) 637 –652
Reassessing the Supreme Court:
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
How Decisions and Negativity
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918794906
Bias Affect Legitimacy
Dino P. Christenson1 and David M. Glick1
While the Supreme Court’s legitimacy is generally considered essential to its influence, scholars continue to debate
whether the Court’s decisions affect individuals’ assessments of it. The last week of the 2013 term provides an unusual
opportunity to evaluate these issues because the Court made a conservative decision concerning the Voting Rights Act
(VRA) only one day before it made a liberal one about same-sex marriage. We use original panel data of individuals’
views throughout this period, including a wave collected on the day between the two decisions, to investigate the links
among decisions and legitimacy. We find that diffuse support for the Court is sensitive to decisions in these two salient
cases conditional on individuals’ ideological distance to the Court and their policy support. Moreover, the negative
effects of an unfavorable decision are stronger than the positive effects of a favorable one.
public opinion, judicial processes and institutions, legitimacy, gay marriage, voting rights
Political observers have long emphasized the importance
Court, in public opinion toward political institutions, and
of perceptions of institutional legitimacy to the Supreme
in the salience of cases make arriving at a general under-
Court. It is generally thought that legitimacy allows the
standing of the micro-foundations of legitimacy extremely
Court the flexibility to make unpopular decisions without
challenging. As a result, a number of questions have been
fear of losing its influence. While partisanship and ideol-
left unanswered pertaining to the conditions under which
ogy have been shown to be powerful explanations of
we should expect to see a change in public opinion around
everything from positions on political figures, institu-
case decisions.
tions, and policies to established facts in the political
In particular, is ideology the sole moderating factor of
behavior and psychology literatures (e.g., Campbell et al.
case decisions on legitimacy? Or does the public update
1960; Christenson and Kriner 2017; Jerit and Barabas
assessments of the Court in ways consistent with its policy
2012; Taber and Lodge 2006; Zaller 1992), similar find-
views, and regardless of the issue? Finally, are pleasing
ings that identification or attitudes condition perceptions
and displeasing decisions equally effective? In short, how
of the Court are relatively scarce. Indeed, the prevailing
do various underlying attitudes interact with Court deci-
view in the scholarly literature has been that diffuse sup-
sions to impact the public’s perceptions of the Court’s
port for the Court is not materially affected by ideological
agreement with the Court’s decisions (e.g., Gibson 2007).
Questions pertaining to legitimacy around the Court’s
Consistent with the prominence of partisanship and ideol-
decisions were particularly prevalent in June of 2013,
ogy broadly in American politics, this established view of
when the Court struck down important components of
stable Court legitimacy in the face of salient and conten-
both the Voting Rights and Defense of Marriage Acts.
tious decisions has been challenged recently (e.g., Bartels
Not only did this week feature two salient decisions from
and Johnston 2013; Christenson and Glick 2015a). While
the same Court on two different days, but it also featured
both sides of the debate offer nuanced arguments (see, for
one decision that upset liberals (voting rights) and one
example, Gibson 2015; Gibson and Nelson 2015), the
basic questions of whether and how diffuse support
1Boston University, MA, USA
responds to the Court’s decisions remain.
Despite great attention to the Court’s legitimacy, few
Corresponding Author:
Dino P. Christenson, Department of Political Science, Boston
works have endeavored to compare the effects of differ-
University, 232 Bay State Rd., Boston, MA 02215, USA.
ent cases. Changes over time in the composition of the

Political Research Quarterly 72(3)
that upset conservatives (marriage equality). Thus, this
Wolbrecht (2000) show that divergence between the ideo-
period provides a rich opportunity to test whether and
logical content of the Supreme Court’s outputs and aggre-
how members of the public update their assessments of
gate ideology affects support for the Court. Bartels and
the Court around decisions.
Johnston (2013) focus on the proximity of individual sub-
We capitalize on the fact that the Court rendered these
jective assessments of the Court’s ideology and find
decisions in sequence while we were collecting panel
strong evidence that diffuse support is a function of indi-
data to address the fundamental questions of the legiti-
vidual-level ideological congruence. Christenson and
macy debate. Our original dataset includes multiple
Glick (2015a) find that diffuse support decreases among
waves before the decision week, multiple waves after it,
individuals whose updated assessments of the Court’s
and, most importantly, a wave collected in the twenty-
ideology move away from their own ideology after
four hours between the two key decisions. Together, the
observing a decision, and that it increases among those
research design and the particular nature of these cases
whose assessments of the Court’s ideology move toward
offer the ability to observe the causal effects of decisions
their own. Bolstering these challenges, Sen (2015) reeval-
at the individual level with substantial external validity.
uates legitimacy theory in the judicial nominations con-
Indeed, the data provide an unusual opportunity to test
text (see, for example, Gibson and Caldeira 2009b) and
whether individuals’ assessments of the Court’s legiti-
provides additional evidence that ideology rather than
macy wax and wane following qualitatively different
factors such as qualifications affect perceptions of poten-
tial justices.
Gibson and Nelson (2015, 34) offer a number of cri-
The Legitimacy Debate
tiques of key variables and of the experimental manipula-
tions used in the most recent studies, concluding that
Going back at least a couple of decades, a cadre of schol-
legitimacy is hardly, if at all, affected by ideological dis-
ars have argued that the Supreme Court’s legitimacy is
agreement: “The Court’s legitimacy seems not to be
high and stable (see, for example, Caldeira and Gibson
grounded in policy agreement with its decisions, nor is it
1992; Gibson 2007; Gibson, Caldeira, and Baird 1998).
connected to the ideological and partisan cross-currents
According to this view, the Court can rely on a reservoir
that so wrack contemporary American politics.” In sum,
of diffuse support that insulates it from unpopular deci-
the current state of the literature is unclear, given two per-
sions. Moreover, according to Positivity Theory, the
spectives that yield opposing predictions about diffuse
underlying behavioral model, the public is exposed to
support when the Court makes important decisions.
decisions alongside symbols and reminders that the Court
Positivity Theory predicts individual-level stability while
is a legalistic institution and, therefore, “different” from
its challengers predict systematic change.
the other branches. This exposure means that even
We hypothesize that the evidence from current and
unwanted decisions can reinforce the Court’s legitimacy,
real decisions will support the latter perspective. That is,
though they may temporarily challenge people’s confi-
we expect (Hypothesis 1; H1) that legitimacy will be
dence or “specific support” (Gibson 2007; Gibson &
sensitive to outputs, such that individuals’ assessments of
Caldeira 2009a, 2009b, 2011). Thus, the dominant view
the Court’s legitimacy will change based on the Court’s
in the literature has been that legitimacy is stable even in
decisions and conditional on their underlying views. This
the face of controversial salient decisions. Perhaps the
expectation would square the legitimacy literature with
strongest illustration of this claim is that even Bush v.
other work in political behavior and psychology. More
Gore (2000) did not appear to affect diffuse support
specifically, we focus on political attitudes moderating
(Gibson, Caldeira, and Spence 2003). Importantly, the
the impact of observable events (i.e., Court decisions) on
claim is not that diffuse support for the Court can never
deeper views about the institution. We draw parallels to
change, but that only a run of unpopular decisions, and
the motivated reasoning literature, which shows how
not one case, can affect it (Gibson and Caldeira 2009a).
political attitudes condition the revelation of new facts
Recent work has found evidence that diffuse support
(e.g., Schaffner and Roche 2016; Taber and Lodge 2006),
can be affected by ideological disagreement with the
and to very recent work showing that partisan associa-
Court, calling into...

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