Michael A. Zilis

Associate Professor, University of Kentucky

AMERICAN POLITICS | Law & Courts | Political Behavior

Cambridge University Press


When the U.S. Supreme Court announces a decision, reporters simplify and dramatize the complex legal issues by highlighting dissenting opinions and thus emphasizing conflict among the justices themselves. This often sensationalistic coverage fosters public controversy over specific rulings despite polls which show that Americans strongly believe in the Court’s legitimacy as an institution. 


The US Supreme Court is the chief institution responsible for guarding minority rights and equality under the law, yet, in order to function authoritatively, the Court depends on a majority of Americans to accept its legitimacy and on policymakers to enforce its rulings. The Rights Paradox confronts this tension, offering a careful conceptualization and theory of judicial legitimacy that emphasizes its connection to social groups. The manuscript demonstrates that attitudes toward minorities and other groups are pivotal for shaping popular support for the Court, with the Court losing support when it rules in favor of unpopular groups. Moreover, justices are aware of these dynamics and strategically moderate their decisions when concerned about the Court's legitimacy. Drawing on survey and experimental evidence, as well as analysis of Court decision-making across many recent high-profile cases, The Rights Paradox examines the implications for 'equal justice under the law' in an era of heightened polarization and conflict.

The Rights Paradox


The Limits of Legitimacy illuminates this link between case law and public opinion. It draws on a diverse array of data and methods, including a case study of eminent domain decisions, analyses of media reporting, an experiment on media messaging, and a study of the controversy over the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.


The manuscript shows that the media tends not to quote from majority opinions. However, the greater the division over a particular ruling among the justices themselves, the greater the likelihood that the media will criticize that ruling, characterize it as "activist," and employ inflammatory rhetoric. The book demonstrates that the media’s portrayal of a decision, as much as the substance of the decision itself, influences citizens’ reactions to and acceptance of it.