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The Legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court in a Polarized Polity


  • Support for the research on which this article is based has been provided by Atlantic Philanthropies in a grant to the Center for Democracy and the Third Sector (CDATS) at Georgetown University, and by the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. Marc Morjé Howard, with the assistance of James L. Gibson, was primarily responsible for executing that survey. I greatly appreciate Howard's untiring efforts on the 2005 project, as well as the support for this research provided by Steven S. Smith. Gregory A. Caldeira, Damon Cann, Jeffrey Yates, Gerhard Loewenberg, and Robert Y. Shapiro provided most useful comments on an earlier version of this article. I also appreciate the research assistance of Marc Hendershot, Jessica Flanigan, and Christina Boyd.

*Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government, Professor of African and African American Studies Department of Political Science, Director, Program on Citizenship and Democratic Values, Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1063, 219 Eliot Hall, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899; e-mail:; Fellow, Centre for Comparative and International Politics, Professor Extraordinary in Political Science Stellenbosch University (South Africa).


Conventional political science wisdom holds that contemporary American politics is characterized by deep and profound partisan and ideological divisions. Unanswered is the question of whether those divisions have spilled over into threats to the legitimacy of American political institutions, such as the U.S. Supreme Court. Since the Court is often intimately involved in making policy in many issue areas that divide Americans—including the contested 2000 presidential election—it is reasonable to hypothesize that loyalty toward the institution depends on policy and/or ideological agreement and partisanship. Using data stretching from 1987 through 2005, the analysis reveals that Court support among the American people has not declined, nor is it connected to partisan and ideological identifications. Instead, support is embedded within a larger set of relatively stable democratic values. Institutional legitimacy may not be obdurate, but it does not seem to be caught up in the divisiveness that characterizes so much of American politics—at least not at present.