Event Details


The Symbols of Judicial Legitimacy: Thinking, Fast and Slow, About the U.S. Supreme Court


James Gibson (Washington University in St. Louis/Russell Sage Foundation)


American Politics Workshop


Lindsay Rogers Room (707 IAB)


4:10 pm - 5:30 pm


See attached paper.

Abstract: How is it that the U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps the least majoritarian of all American political institutions, is capable of getting most citizens to accept rulings with which they disagree? This analysis addresses the role of the symbols of judicial authority and legitimacy - the robe, the gavel, the cathedral-like court building - in contributing to this willingness of ordinary citizens to acquiesce to disagreeable court decisions. We show using an experimental design and a nationally representative sample that judicial symbols are important in establishing the link between institutional legitimacy and acceptance. Our analysis indicates that exposure to judicial symbols (1) severs the link between disappointment over the Court's policy and willingness to challenge the decision: (2) strengthens the link between institutional support and acquiescence among those with relatively low prior awareness of the Supreme Court; and (3) has differing effects depending upon levels of pre-existing institutional support. We understand these empirical findings with the assistance of three bodies of theory: Legitimacy Theory, Positivity Theory, and the Theory of Motivated Political Reasoning. The Theory of Motivated Political Reasoning explains how nonconscious stimuli such as background symbols can affect the reasoning of ordinary citizens, providing the micro-level underpinning for the asymmetrical effects of exposure to the judiciary that is addressed by Positivity Theory. Because symbols influence citizens, and influence them in ways that reinforce the legitimacy of courts, the connection between institutional attitudes and acquiescence posited by Legitimacy Theory is both supported and explained.