The Limits of Legitimacy

Dissenting Opinions, Media Coverage, and Public Responses to Supreme Court Decisions
Michael A. Zilis
An exploration of how sensationalist reporting, which emphasizes dissenting opinions and dramatizes complex legal issues, fosters public controversy and influences citizens’ reactions to Supreme Court decisions


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. In The Limits of Legitimacy, Michael A. Zilis illuminates this link between case law and public opinion. Drawing on a diverse array of sources and methods, he employs 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.

Zilis finds 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. Hethen 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.

This meticulously constructed study and its persuasively argued conclusion advance the understanding of the media, judicial politics, political institutions, and political behavior.

The Limits of Legitimacy is an excellent example of rigorous scholarship. Zilis uses a variety of methodological approaches to examine the effect of media framing on the mass public’s perception of the legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court. This fine book should be essential reading for scholars interested in the connections between the media’s coverage of the Court’s merits decisions, public reactions to those decisions, and public attitudes toward the Court.”
—Eric Waltenburg, Purdue University

“This book offers a much-needed analysis of the intersection of the U.S. Supreme Court, media, and public opinion. Zilis deftly and exhaustively explores the justices’ role in shaping news coverage and the Court’s reliance on the news media to shape public opinion.”
—Richard Davis, Brigham Young University

“Michael Zilis has done a remarkable job melding case studies, experimental data, and survey data to demonstrate a clear link between decisions the Supreme Court makes and how the public responds to these decisions. Anyone who wants to better understand this link should read this book.”
—Timothy Johnson, University of Minnesota

“Zilis presents an engaging theoretical and empirical examination of the interaction between Supreme Court decisions, the media, and public attitudes. Making use of case studies as well as systematic and experimental data, Zilis demonstrates that his innovative theoretical approach explains when and how the media will emphasize conflict within the Court and how these representations shape public perceptions of the Court’s legitimacy. These are clearly important issues for students of the Court, the media, and public opinion.”
—Don Haider-Markel, University of Kansas

Cover: © Shutterstock/y3s0rn0

Michael A. Zilis is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kentucky.

Praise / Awards

  • "This new study of the impact of Supreme Court dissents is a welcome addition to the literature...the author brings a new perspective on the Supreme Court that will be refreshing to new analysts and veteran court scholars alike."
  • "[An] engaging and enlightening study to reemphasize the power of the news media in political life."
    --Perspectives on Politics

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 254pp.
  • 15 tables, 22 figures.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07274-3

Add to Cart
  • $94.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05274-5

Add to Cart
  • $50.95 U.S.

Related Products



  • Supreme Court
    Legitimacy theory
    Policy legitimation
    Judicial behavior
    Media coverage
    Deferential coverage
    Kelo v. New London