When Court Legitimacy is Updated: The Moderating Effect of Content-Relevance on the Relationship between Specific and Diffuse Support of the Judiciary
22 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2015
Date Written: May 2015
A central question in the study of courts' legitimacy pertains to the extent to which the specific court decisions affect their institutional legitimacy – an issue of both theoretical and empirical concern. The scholarly literature (centered almost entirely on the US Supreme Court) typically distinguishes between diffuse and specific support – the former referring to general attitudes toward the institution, while the latter addresses the congruence between the particular content of a judicial decision and the policy preferences of the evaluating public. The conventional view in the literature suggests that the level of diffuse support is typically unaffected by short-term variations in specific support. To the extent that such a relationship exists, changes in diffuse support are short-lived and incremental. However, recent findings suggest that specific support impacts diffuse support.
These conflicting empirical findings presents a puzzle, which requires resolution – either by resolving that one empirical account is more valid than the other; or by revising the theory in a way that may account for both seemingly conflicting results. Our study takes the latter approach. Drawing on the work of Hoekstra (2000) we suggest that different judicial decisions vary in their relevance to the evaluating public. This "content-relevance" of the decision serves as a judgment-weight of specific support in the updating process of diffuse support. Given a particular level of specific support (e.g. in/congruence between the judicial decision and preferred policy), low content-relevance is hypothesized to entails minimal updating of diffuse support, while high content-relevance lead to it pronounced updating.
We utilize a unique political situation created by one judicial decision by the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) during the 2013 municipal elections. The HCJ ordered the removal of three city elected mayors (on the basis of their indictments for corruption) less than a month before the municipal elections yet permitted all three to put their names on the ballots. In fact, all three incumbent mayors were consequently reelected by the relevant constituencies shortly after their removal by the court. This unique setting permits simultaneous comparison of the responses of communities for which the same court decision is either strongly or weakly relevant. We control for potential intervening factors by selecting demographically matched cities, and by controlling for a host of individual-level characteristics. Our findings provide support for the content-relevance hypothesis. Specific support was found to be associated with diffuse support only in 'target' cities (addressed directly by the judicial decision), but not in the 'control' cities. These findings replicate the two sets of seemingly conflicting results reported in the literature, and offer systematic and theoretically based resolution to these diverging results. Moreover, this study contributes to the literature on court legitimacy also by expanding the geographic, political and legal context in which public opinion interacts with legal decision.
Keywords: Law and Politics, Courts Legitimacy, Diffuse Support
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