Collaborative Research: Judicial Legitimacy in Comparative Perspective

Project: Research project

Project Details


Political incumbents around the world commonly introduce legislation to undermine or politicize the judicial branch of government, such as 'packing' the court's membership, or reducing the court's ability to decide certain cases. Political scientists have long thought that citizens will punish incumbents who advance these 'court curbing' proposals in the next election. Nevertheless, these attacks continue. This project seeks to understand the conditions under which voters are both willing and able punish incumbent politicians who undermine high courts, as well as the circumstances under which politicians may actually benefit from these interbranch assaults. The researchers will explain variation in citizens' support for judicial institutions in 12 countries as a function of their satisfaction with the court's policymaking, their democratic values, their support for incumbents, and the political context in which they live. Understanding the foundations and consequences of judicial legitimacy around the globe is essential for building and maintaining the rule of law worldwide.

The key intellectual contribution of this study is the use of an original survey experiment, fielded in 12 countries around the world, to probe the electoral costs and benefits of interbranch attacks for incumbent politicians. The experiment relies on a novel dependent variable, a citizen's willingness to withdraw support from an incumbent who openly seeks to undermine courts, to examine directly a behavioral manifestation of legitimacy theory. Because public support is a theoretical antecedent to a willingness to punish incumbents for court curbing proposals, the surveys will contain validated measures of individuals' willingness to ascribe institutional legitimacy to judicial institutions, the first fielding of these items on cross-national surveys in over a quarter-century. With these original data, the researchers will test differences in the foundations of institutional legitimacy across countries. The theoretical framework for this research emphasizes the role of democratic values, a concept that is often referenced in existing studies of judicial legitimacy but has not been tested in a systematic fashion. This project therefore advances beyond earlier attempts to understand judicial legitimacy in its theoretical focus, experimental design, and the breadth of data incorporated into the study. Findings from this research will inform political scientists, legal scholars, policymakers and academics to better understand the public foundations of judicial independence and the rule of law, two foundational concepts in governance across continents.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date8/1/197/31/23


  • National Science Foundation: $117,837.00


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