Populist Governments, Judicial Independence, and Public Trust in the Courts
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Description: Can governments succeed in making courts politically compliant without undermining the public’s overall confidence in the judicial system? Many studies show a positive relationship between judicial independence and citizens’ trust in courts, suggesting the answer should be negative. However, most of those studies have focused on contemporary correlations between institutions and attitudes, without assessing what happens when court curbing is actually implemented. Additionally, they also indicate that factors such as citizens’ education level and political preferences may moderate the consequences of attacks on judicial independence. We use Europe as a laboratory to analyze the repercussions on public opinion of the assaults on judicial independence conducted by populist governments in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland over the past decade. Employing data from the Eurobarometer and a difference-in-differences approach, we find evidence of an adverse effect of court curbing on judicial trust. However, such effect emerges as stronger and more consistent among those citizens who are most ideologically distant from their governments. These findings coincide with experimental evidence indicating the apathy of large segments of public opinion towards the prospects of democratic backsliding, suggesting that many citizens may fail to change their trust in the courts even when governments make them politically subservient.