Is the U.S. Supreme Court's Legitimacy Grounded in Performance Satisfaction and Ideology?


  • This article is a much revised version of a paper of the same title presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. Our analysis relies in part on data collected by the Freedom and Tolerance Surveys, which are funded by the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis. We appreciate the support provided for this research by Steven S. Smith, Director of the Center. Gibson acknowledges the support he was provided for this work as a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. We very much appreciate the comments of Vanessa Baird, Brandon Bartels, Christopher Johnston, and Rich Pacelle on an earlier version of this article. A replication data set for the empirical analysis in this article is available at the AJPS Data Archive on Dataverse (


Bartels and Johnston have recently presented evidence suggesting that the legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court is grounded in the ideological preferences and perceptions of the American people. In addition, they offer experimental data purporting to show that dissatisfaction with a single Court decision substantially diminishes the institution's legitimacy. These findings strongly break with earlier research on the Court's institutional support, as the authors recognize. The theoretical implications of their findings are profound. If the authors are correct that legitimacy is strongly dependent upon satisfying the policy preferences and ideological predilections of the American people, the essence of legitimacy is fundamentally transformed. Consequently, we reinvestigate the relationships among ideology, performance satisfaction, and Court legitimacy, unearthing empirical findings that diverge markedly from theirs. We conclude with some thoughts about how the Court's “countermajoritarian dilemma” can be reconceptualized and recalculated, once more drawing conclusions sharply at odds with those of Bartels and Johnston.