Opinion Leadership, Backlash, and Delegitimation: Supreme Court Rulings and Public Opinion
42 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2009
Date Written: August 4, 2009
Can the Supreme Court persuade the public to agree with its rulings on controversial social issues? Or do the Court’s pronouncements on these issues cause the Court to lose credibility with those who disagree with it? Both of these questions have been the topics of theory and analysis, but most of this research has been subject to the limits inherent in using observational data. Here we explore these questions using a two-wave survey experiment with a nationally representative sample of Americans. We find that learning of the Court’s rulings moves opinion toward the Court in an unmistakable fashion in only one out of six cases studied (the decriminalization of same-sex relations in Lawrence v. Texas). More significant, we find strong evidence that unpopular Court rulings result in a loss of legitimacy for the Court - but only among conservatives. Learning of liberal Court rulings causes those who disagree with them to shift sharply toward favoring a reduction in the Court’s powers. Learning of conservative rulings has no such effect. Our findings suggest that in contemporary American politics, the persuasive powers of the Court are limited and the institutional legitimacy of the Court is particularly fragile among conservatives.
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