In American public imagination, courts are powerful but also impotent. They are guardians of citizens' rights but also agents of corporate wealth; simultaneously the least dangerous branch and the ultimate arbiters of fairness and justice. After recounting the social science literature on the mixed reception of courts in American public culture, this essay explains how the contradictory embrace of courts and law by Americans is not a weakness or flaw, nor a mark of confusion or naïveté. Rather, Americans' paradoxical interpretations of courts and judges sustain rather than undermine our legal institutions. These opposing accounts are a source of institutional durability and power because they combine the historical and widespread aspirations for the rule of law with a pragmatic recognition of the limits of institutional practice; these sundry accounts balance an appreciation for the discipline of legal reasoning with desires for responsive, humane judgment.

This content is only available as a PDF.
This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits copying and redistributing the material in any medium or format for noncommercial purposes only. For a full description of the license, please visit