Michael A. Zilis

Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky

POLITICAL SCIENCE | American Politics |  Public Law & Judicial Politics | Political Behavior

My research explores resistance to the U.S. judiciary, pushing back on the conventional conception of American courts as authoritative.  This methodologically pluralist work makes linkages across subfield boundaries, speaking to scholars that study legitimacy, race and politics, inter-institutional conflict, and media and politics. 


​The Limits of Legitimacy: Dissenting Opinions, Media Coverage, and Public Responses to Supreme Court Decisions

The University of Michigan Press

Summary: When the U.S. Supreme Court announces a decision, reporters simplify and dramatize the complex legal issues by highlighting dissenting opin- ions and thus emphasizing conflict among the justices themselves. This often sensationalistic coverage fosters public controversy over specific rulings despite polls that show that Americans strongly believe in the Court’s legitimacy as an institution. The Limits of Legitimacy illuminates this link between case law and public opinion. Drawing on a diverse array of sources and methods, I employ case studies of eminent domain decisions, analysis of media reporting, an experiment to test how volunteers respond to media messages, and finally the natural experiment of the controversy over the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. I find 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. I then demonstrate 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. 

"Minority Groups and Judicial Legitimacy: Group Affect Theory and the Incentives for Judicial Responsiveness" 

Political Research Quarterly

Summary: This paper introduces a new perspective into the literature on judicial legitimacy by examining the incentives for courts to cater to a popular majority and offering a novel model of legitimacy that has consequences for judicial responsiveness. The account integrates into the literature classic research on how strategic social groups shape public opinion.  I theorize that citizens use their perceptions of the judiciary’s support for various social groups as a means to assess the institution overall.  From this insight, I derive specific expectations about the conditions under which the Supreme Court’s protection of minority groups like gays and immigrants can damage its legitimacy.  Using national survey data, I demonstrate that dislike for the beneficiaries of recent Court rulings systematically diminishes the institution’s legitimacy.  The influence of these group-based considerations shapes individual-level attitude change and can be observed at various points in time.

Disagreeble Rhetoric and the Prospect of Public Opposition: Opinion Moderation on the U.S. Supreme Court"
With Justin Wedeking​
Political Research Quarterly
Summary:​ Elite rhetoric is an important aspect of democracy, and understanding why elites alter their rhetorical tone is vital to understanding the nature of public-elite interaction.  In this paper we identify the conditions under which insulated elites respond to public opinion by changing the amount of disagreeable rhetoric they emphasize.  We examine Supreme Court opinions and theorize that the majority limits the use of disagreeable rhetoric - language with harsh, unpleasant, or negative connotations - in salient cases with the intention of dulling public opposition to rulings.  We test our expectations on two levels, the first using a broad measure of public mood on a large sample of cases, and the second using a small sample with issue-specific public opinion measures.  We find that as public opinion diverges from the Court, the majority tones down its disagreeable rhetoric, but only in salient cases.

"Restraining the Court: Assessing Accounts of Congressional Attempts to Limit Supreme Court Authority" 

With Alyx Mark

Legislative Studies Quarterly

​Summary: We propose a multilevel account of legislative Court curbing in order to assess existing explanations as to why such proposals come about. We argue that although Court curbing is commonly seen as the result of institutional conflict between Congress and the Supreme Court, it is best understood as a product of three interrelated factors: the individual motivations on the part of lawmakers, the partisan context in which they operate, and institutional disagreements between Court and legislature. We find strong evidence that the preferences of individual lawmakers and the dominant legislative coalitions in Congress drive Court curbing.

"Stepping on Congress: Congress, Courts, and Inter-Institutional Relations"

With Forrest Maltzman, Alyx Mark, and Charles Shipan

​Journal of Law and Courts

Summary:​ Legislative enactment is only one step in the life of a law. How a law shapes public life after enactment is frequently the result of whether the judiciary interprets the provisions contained in a law and how courts reconcile provisions within and across laws. Although it is well understood that the judiciary may be crucial in determining the effect that legislation has on public life, the factors that determine whether the judiciary ends up playing such a role are not well understood. We investigate why the courts, through statutory interpretation, address some major laws but not others and why some laws are addressed soon after enactment, while others are on the books for years before they reach the judicial branch. By investigating these factors, we develop a greater understanding of how the crafting of a law shapes the judiciary’s role in interpreting it. Our evidence shows that conditions at the time of enactment, plus features of the law, play a major role in determining whether, and when, a law reaches the courts. More specifically, both divided government and disagreement between the two chambers increase the likelihood that the courts will address significant laws. We also analyze the effects of severability clauses and find that their inclusion has no effect on this likelihood. 

"Negative Media Coverage of the Supreme Court: The Interactive Role of Opinion Language, Coalition Size, and Ideological Signals"

With Justin Wedeking and Alexander Denison
​Conditional Acceptance at Social Science Quarterly

Summary: When do the media use negative language to cover the Supreme Court, and what are the political consequences of this portrayal?  We offer a novel consideration of how judicial behavior influences coverage of the Court. Examining over 1,000 news articles from 29 diverse outlets covering rulings from the 2014 term, and using text-based measures of both the Court and media’s negative rhetoric, we find that the Court sends an important signal of conflict through use of negative language in its decisions, leading to an increase in negativity in subsequent news coverage.  We also show that this effect is conditional upon both the degree of consensus among the justices and ideological signals the Court sends when it rules. Our findings have important implications regarding public opinion about the Court and the nature of media slant.

"Blurring Institutional Boundaries: Judges' Perceptions of Threats to Judicial Independence."

With Alyx Mark

Conditional Acceptance at Journal of Law and Courts

Summary:​ The separation of powers literature provides mixed evidence about the likelihood that the federal courts respond to Congressional threats.  Furthermore, , and little work has sought to adjudicate between the two main categories of threat (policy- and institution-based) various threats Congress employs to ensure a compliant judiciary and the expected responses from the courts.  In this paper, we take advantage of an underutilized source of data.   We conduct original interviews with dozensover two dozen of sitting  – federal judges  themselves – in order to distill how judicial actors interpret threats from Congress.  

"Hitting the 'Bullseye' in Supreme Court Coverage: News Quality in the Court’s 2014 Term."

With Justin Wedeking and Alexander Denison
Elon Law Review

Summary:​ We seek to understand the central components of coverage quality when it comes to the media’s reporting on the Supreme Court and specifically as it relates to the idea of citizen competence.We theorize that the quality of coverage is shaped by the relationship between the content of news reports and the Court’s opinion in a given case.  We argue that quality coverage should convey, with some degree of accuracy, the substance of Court rulings to the public. We specifically focus on both the complexity and negativity of news coverage relative to the opinions they discuss.  Our conceptualization implies that as coverage deviates markedly from written opinions on either of these dimensions, it falls short of the quality that is necessary to adequately inform citizens about what the Court has ruled. 

​"The Political Consequences of Supreme Court Consensus: Media Coverage, Public Opinion, and Unanimity as a Public-Facing Strategy."

Washington University Journal of Law and Policy

​Summary: I conceive of consensus as a signal that has consequences for how the media and the public respond to rulings.  I argue that high levels of support for rulings decided by large majority coalitions arise from the more favorable treatment the press gives these decisions.  Because most citizens do not read judicial opinions and only sporadically pay attention to the Court, they are unlikely to have noticed the recent push for consensus.  Yet consensus allows the judiciary to effectively legitimate decisions by increasing favorable media coverage of them. This is important because most citizens learn about Court decisions through the press. I theorize that the press uses voting signals from the Court when shaping coverage of rulings. The press is more likely to frame non-unanimous decisions in unfavorable terms than otherwise similar unanimous ones. This difference in coverage in turn informs public opinion about high profile rulings.  The Court can foster support for its rulings by signaling its consensus to the press, which then offers favorable coverage that can increase popular approval of the Court’s actions.