Date of Award

Summer 7-1-2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Keck, Thomas M.


Court Reform, Felt Obligation, Judicial Legitimacy, Political Psychology, Public Opinion, US Supreme Court

Subject Categories

Law | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


For the first time in nearly a century, serious conversations are taking place involving re- form of the Nation's highest court. Scholarly wisdom holds that such discussions indicate a decrease of the Court's legitimacy which will have detrimental effects on the rule of law and minority rights. Indeed, several generations of political science scholarship have exam- ined the relationship between institutional support for the Supreme Court and its ability to exercise judicial power effectively, all finding a strong relationship. Do reform efforts actu- ally signal a collapse in Court legitimacy and the death of the rule of law as we know it? Will groups have to appeal to popular majorities now that the Court is seemingly without legitimacy to validate and protect minority rights against the majority?

In this dissertation, I argue that, contrary to conventional wisdom, people can desire change for the Court while still ascribing it the legitimacy necessary to retain its place in the constitutional order. As such, efforts to reform the Court are not detrimental to the rule of law. In the process, I argue that how the field has traditionally conceptualized "legitimacy," which is thought of as a willingness to defend the Court (or, institutional diffuse support), has several shortcomings that make it a less-than-ideal measure of legitimacy. In its place, I argue that an internalized feeling of obligation is a more appropriate conceptualization of legitimacy, and that these two measures are only weakly correlated. Once we have a better understanding of legitimacy, it becomes clear that people can desire alterations to the Court for a variety of reasons, several of which have nothing to do with its legitimacy.

This project underscores the motivations and consequences of reform efforts and helps explain how they can coexist with a Supreme Court that has a robust, thriving legitimacy. For reform advocates, it affects how the issue is framed and debated by highlighting the distinction between legitimacy and reform. For opponents, the project provides reassurance that any efforts undertaken do not threaten the legitimacy of the institution or the rule of law by showing that the Court can maintain its place in the constitutional order amid reform attempts. Additionally, this project enables discussions of democratic accountability and representation by investigating the extent to which the public holds the Court accountable without threatening its place in the constitutional order. Democratic institutions rely on legitimacy for governance, courts rely on legitimacy for their decisions to be realized, and activists who turn to courts rely on legitimacy for rights-protection and implementation. By refining and improving our conceptualization of legitimacy, this dissertation advances our understanding of a critical concept while further exploring the way that society interacts with and understands the Supreme Court.


Open Access