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On the Ideological Foundations of Supreme Court Legitimacy in the American Public


  • We thank James L. Gibson, Eric D. Lawrence, John Sides, anonymous reviewers, and participants at the MIT American Politics Workshop and the George Washington University Junior Faculty Colloquium for helpful feedback and suggestions. The Annenberg Supreme Court Study Data can be obtained from Data for the survey experiment examined in this article were collected through NSF Grant 0094964. Data analyzed in the article are available at

Brandon L. Bartels is Assistant Professor of Political Science, George Washington University, 2115 G Street NW, Suite 440, Washington, DC 20052 ( Christopher D. Johnston is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Duke University, Campus Box 90204, Durham, NC 27708 (


Conventional wisdom says that individuals’ ideological preferences do not influence Supreme Court legitimacy orientations. Most work is based on the assumption that the contemporary Court is objectively conservative in its policymaking, meaning that ideological disagreement should come from liberals and agreement from conservatives. Our nuanced look at the Court's policymaking suggests rational bases for perceiving the Court's contemporary policymaking as conservative, moderate, and even liberal. We argue that subjective ideological disagreement—incongruence between one's ideological preferences and one's perception of the Court's ideological tenor—must be accounted for when explaining legitimacy. Analysis of a national survey shows that subjective ideological disagreement exhibits a potent, deleterious impact on legitimacy. Ideology exhibits sensible connections to legitimacy depending on how people perceive the Court's ideological tenor. Results from a survey experiment support our posited mechanism. Our work has implications for the public's view of the Court as a “political” institution.