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Why Do We Obey the Law?

The importance of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s addition to the US Supreme Court goes beyond the social landmark that it represents. A fragile institution under any circumstances, the rule of law in the United States is desperately in need of the legitimation that Jackson can confer.

CAMBRIDGE – Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation as a justice of the US Supreme Court has been hailed as a breakthrough for Black Americans and other minority communities, for women and mothers, for public defenders, and even for those who went to public school. But the biggest winner is the Supreme Court itself.

According to Gallup, more Americans now disapprove of the Supreme Court than approve of it. With public confidence in the institution having fallen from 62% in 2000 to 40% in 2021, legal scholars and political scientists warn of a crisis of legitimacy. Yet support for Jackson’s confirmation was 66%, the highest for any nominee in over a decade.

Although the Court is not supposed to be a “popular” institution, public perceptions still matter, because they bear on a question – and a mystery – with which legal philosophers have been grappling for millennia: Why do people obey the law? Or, put another way: What gives the law – and legal institutions – authority?

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