James Gibson


Washington University in St. Louis
Department of Political Science


Abstract: Legitimacy is for Losers: The Interconnections of Institutional Legitimacy, Performance Evalutions, and the Symbols of Judicial Authority

In the last decade or so, social scientists of a variety of different intellectual orientations have renewed their interest in the concept “institutional legitimacy.” In part, this reflects concerns over the efficacy of institutions, and in particular the assumption that all institutions require a healthy dose of voluntary compliance in order to be effective. The U. S. Supreme Court is more dependent than most political institutions on the normative support of its constituents; without a “reservoir of goodwill” to protect it, the Court as an institution is quite vulnerable to the dissatisfactions and disappointments of both elites and the mass public.

This chapter provides an overview of Legitimacy Theory as applied to the U.S. Supreme Court, with particular attention to the attitudes of the American mass public. I focus on two contemporary research questions: (1) the sources of legitimacy among the American mass public, and especially the degree to which policy disagreement undermines institutional support, and (2) the ways in which legitimacy is sustained by exposure to the symbols of judicial authority. Taking advantage of both extant and newly available data, I present evidence that diffuse and specific support are not inordinately connected, and then provide an information-processing theory that explains how judicial symbols protect institutional legitimacy. I conclude by noting that research on Legitimacy Theory has recently acquired a new vigor, making it likely that important theoretical and empirical advances will be forthcoming.

Biographical Sketch:

James L. Gibson is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government in the Department of Political Science and Professor of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.  He is also the Director of the Program on Citizenship and Democratic Values and Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, and Professor Extraordinary in Political Science, and Fellow, Centre for Comparative and International Politics, Stellenbosch University (South Africa). Gibson’s research interests are in Law and Politics, Political Psychology, Comparative Politics, and American Politics. He is currently working on an extensive research agenda investigating the legitimacy of institutions (especially courts, state and federal), a study of public reactions to the trials of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and a longitudinal study of political freedom and intolerance in the United States. Two of Gibson’s books were published in 2009: Citizens, Courts, and Confirmations: Positivity Theory and the Judgments of the American People (Princeton) and Overcoming Historical Injustices: Land Reconciliation in South Africa (Cambridge). The latter is the final entry in Gibson’s South African “Overcoming Trilogy.” In 2009, Gibson was the James B. McClatchy Visiting Professor at the Stanford Law School. His Electing Judges: The Surprising Effects of Campaigning on Judicial Legitimacy was published in 2012 by the University of Chicago Press. In 2011, Gibson received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Law and Courts Section of the American Political Science Association (honoring “a distinguished career of scholarly achievement”). For 2012-2013, Gibson was a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City, working on a study of how judicial symbols (e.g., robes, cathedral-like buildings) affect the attitudes citizen hold of the judiciary. Gibson has published extensively in all the major domestic and international political science journals. 

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