The Rights Paradox

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. 

Forthcoming at Cambridge University Press

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.

Michael A. Zilis

Associate Professor, University of Kentucky

AMERICAN POLITICS | Law & Courts | Political Behavior