Chief Justice Roberts’s Health Care Decision Disrobed: The Microfoundations of the Supreme Court’s Legitimacy

The following blog post by Dino P. Christenson and David M. Glick summarizes the authors’ recently published AJPS article, titled “Chief Justice Roberts’ Healthcare Decision Disrobed: The Microfoundations of the Supreme Court’s Legitimacy.”

After the Supreme Court makes a salient decision, as it recently did in the “Hobby Lobby” contraceptives case, analysts often ask whether the decision undermines the Court’s legitimacy, i.e., the public’s diffuse support for the Court. Scholars have offered competing takes on this question. One perspective asserts that the Court’s legitimacy is essentially stable because people believe that the Court makes principled and legalistic decisions, which make it different than the political branches. Others challenge these claims by arguing that the Court’s authority to make unpopular decisions is tenuous, and that people assess the Court’s legitimacy based on their agreement with its decisions. Many of us naturally think of these issues in the US context because of salient cases like Bush v. Gore, but the issues are arguably just as relevant in other countries where the courts are less established and acceptance of disfavored judicial rulings is relatively less likely.

In our recent research we evaluate the sources of the Court’s legitimacy by assessing how individuals responded to the Court’s decision in the 2012 Affordable Care Act case. A key feature of our study is the panel data we collected before and after the decision that allows us to track within-individual change in perceptions of the Court around the decision. The second key part of our study was a bit more fortuitous. A couple of days after the decision, mainstream media reported that Chief Justice Roberts had changed his mind leading to his decision to uphold the mandate, suggested that his decision may have been more strategic than sincere, and that he withstood vigorous lobbying by some of the conservative justices. We shared this article with some of our participants to expose them to the idea that the Court is a political institution and thus may not be as “different” as the literature has suggested.

Our findings demonstrate that the competing perspectives on these issues are not mutually exclusive and, moreover, that the underlying mechanisms magnify each other’s effects. First, people’s legitimacy assessments moved in accord with their evaluations of the Court’s ideology. For example, those who perceived the Court as having moved away from them ideologically reduced their support for it. Second, exposure to the article implying that the Court is not so “different” also reduced legitimacy. Third, people who moved the Court away from them and read the article experienced extra large legitimacy losses. This interactive effect only applies to those who disagreed with the Court. Those who believed the Court moved toward their own views did not seem to mind how it made its decision, suggesting that only the losers care about processes in the Courts. Finally, we provide a novel explanation of why previous analyses have found legitimacy to be stable around decisions. While individuals updated their assessments of the Court, they did so in roughly equal numbers in each direction leading to aggregate stability. We suspect this is a common pattern in salient and politicized cases.

Dino P. Christenson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston University (

David M. Glick is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston University (

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.