Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 December 2020
Public support for the US Supreme Court has been trending downward for more than a decade. High-profile decisions and hotly contested nominations have drawn the Court into our polarized politics. Recently, some justices have spent considerable time and energy giving interviews, speeches, and the like, assuring the public that the Court is an apolitical, neutral arbiter of disputes, distinct from the “political” branches. In this context, we turn to an understudied potential source of judicial legitimacy: the off-bench public rhetoric of Supreme Court justices. In this article, we present evidence from three original survey experiments to argue that Supreme Court justices’ off-bench rhetoric can powerfully influence public perceptions of the Court’s institutional legitimacy. Furthermore, these studies show that performance approval is key to changes in legitimacy: respondents who disapprove of a Court decision were immune to the effects of justices’ rhetoric.
The authors thank Brandon Bartels, Sara Benesh, Chris Krewson, and the anonymous referees for helpful comments on previous drafts. The studies presented here were approved by the Institutional Review Boards at Princeton University (Studies 1 and 2) and Purdue University (Study 3).