The Legitimacy Conferring Capacity of the U.S. Supreme Court: The Influence of Institutional Symbols

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Principal investigator:

James L. Gibson

Washington University in St. Louis; Stellenbosch University (South Africa)



Sample size: 1091

Field period: 10/25/2011-04/13/2012

How is it that the U.S. Supreme Court is capable of getting most citizens to accept rulings with which they disagree? This analysis addresses the role of the symbols of judicial authority and legitimacy – the robe, the gavel, the cathedral-like court building – in contributing to this willingness of ordinary people to acquiesce to disagreeable court decisions. Using an experimental design and a nationally representative sample, we show that exposure to judicial symbols (1) strengthens the link between institutional support and acquiescence among those with relatively low prior awareness of the Supreme Court; (2) has differing effects depending upon levels of pre-existing institutional support; and (3) severs the link between disappointment with a disagreeable Court decision and willingness to challenge the ruling. Since symbols influence citizens in ways that reinforce the legitimacy of courts, the connection between institutional attitudes and acquiescence posited by Legitimacy Theory is both supported and explained.

Exposure to the symbols of judicial authority (e.g., robes) activates considerations of fairness and justice that neutralize the effects of displeasure with a Supreme Court decision.

Experimental Manipulations
Presentation of symbols of judicial authority accompanying a Supreme Court decision.

Acquiescence to a Supreme Court Decision.
Change in Institutional Support.

Summary of Results
Exposure to symbols changes the way people think about the U.S. Supreme Court. In particular, being exposed to judicial symbols neutralizes the effects of displeasure with unwanted Court decisions. In addition, exposure has the effect of rendering uninformed citizens similar to the highly informed.


Gibson, James L., Milton Lodge, and Benjamin Woodson. 2014. "Losing, but Accepting: Legitimacy, Positivity Theory, and the Symbols of Judicial Authority." Law and Society Review 48 (#4, December): 837-866.
Honorable Mention, 2015 Law and Society Association Article Prize.
Gibson, James L., and Michael J. Nelson. 2015. "Change in Institutional Support for the U.S. Supreme Court: Is the Court's Legitimacy Imperiled by the Decisions It Makes?" Public Opinion Quarterly forthcoming.