When the Supreme Court loses Americans' loyalty, chaos – even violence – can follow

The Supreme Court’s historically low public standing has prompted a national conversation about the court’s legitimacy. It’s even drawn rare public comment from three sitting Supreme Court justices. What’s referred to by experts as the problem of “judicial legitimacy” may seem abstract, but the court’s faltering public support is about more than popularity.

Eroding legitimacy means that government officials and ordinary people become increasingly unlikely to accept public policies with which they disagree. And Americans need only look to the relatively recent past to understand the stakes of the court’s growing legitimacy problem.

Cost ‘paid in blood’

The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education shined a light on many white Americans’ tenuous loyalty to the authority of the federal judiciary.

In Brown, the court unanimously held that racial segregation in public education violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The justices were abundantly aware that their decision would evoke strong emotions. So Chief Justice Earl Warren worked tirelessly to ensure that the court issued a unanimous, short and readable opinion designed to calm the anticipated popular opposition.

Warren’s efforts were in vain. Rather than recognizing the court’s authoritative interpretation of the Constitution, many white Americans participated in an extended, violent campaign of resistance to the desegregation ruling.