Recent polls show confidence in Supreme Court, with caveats
Public faith in government has fallen to historic lows. The Supreme Court, however, appears to have bucked the trend. A number of recent polls demonstrate broad public support for the job the justices are doing, though this approval appears influenced by party alignment.
Surveys of public opinion on the court were released this month by Gallup and the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Marquette Law School released another yesterday. Although the results depend to some degree on how the questions are framed, the polls share two central findings: The Supreme Court enjoys an appreciable level of public support, and this support is higher among political conservatives.
Annenberg found that 68 percent of the public trusts the court to act in the public’s best interest, while Gallup found that a more modest 54 percent approve of the job the court is doing. Of respondents to the Marquette survey, 80 percent possess at least “some” confidence in the Supreme Court, while nearly 40 percent rank their confidence level at “quite a lot” or “a great deal.” Marquette also found that, of the three branches of government, 57 percent find the Supreme Court most trustworthy, compared with 22 percent for Congress and 21 percent for the president.
This confidence is split by ideology. According to Marquette’s poll, 52 percent of “very conservative” respondents have high confidence in the court, compared to 31 percent of “very liberal” voters – 36 percent of those “very liberal” voters report low confidence. Gallup found a drastic shift in these relative levels of support under President Donald Trump, with conservative support for the court nearly tripling since 2016 and liberal support reduced by more than half.
The three polls also explored the public’s view of the court’s involvement in politics, with more varied results. Although 33 percent of Marquette respondents think the Supreme Court is conservative, a full 50 percent view it as moderate – and only 8 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of those who say they closely follow politics would describe the court as “very conservative.” However, the Annenberg results offer a different picture:
More than half of Americans (57%) agree with the statement that the court “gets too mixed up in politics.” And just half of the respondents (49%) hold the view that Supreme Court justices set aside their personal and political views and make rulings based on the Constitution, the law, and the facts of the case.
That a majority of Americans do not believe the justices make impartial decisions is striking. According to Gallup, a majority of Americans are also unhappy with the court’s ideological makeup, with 33 percent viewing it as “too conservative” and 17 percent as “too liberal.”
This may explain, in part, a remarkable finding from the Marquette data: nontrivial public support for measures to reform the Supreme Court. Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt’s failed proposal to add six justices to the Supreme Court in 1937, the notion of “court packing” has been viewed unfavorably by the electorate. Today, the memory of 1937 might be fading. Although Marquette found a majority opposed to court packing, it found 43 percent in support, with Democrats evenly split and Independents tepidly favoring the idea. Term limits for Supreme Court justices drew support from 72 percent of Marquette’s respondents, with no notable difference between conservatives and liberals.
These results may portend a debate on the Supreme Court in 2020. Although the court avoided a number of high-profile disputes last term, the justices have taken up a veritable buffet of controversial cases this go-around: abortion, LGBTQ discrimination, gun rights, undocumented immigration and religious-school funding – not to mention potential clashes over executive privilege. As Gallup notes, it is doubtful that a slew of contentious decisions – most of which are expected next June, in the heat of the presidential election campaign – will have no effect on public opinion. And, perhaps sensing the shift picked up by Marquette, a number of prominent Democratic candidates have come out in support of proposals for court reform.
For now, the Supreme Court appears to enjoy solid public support. The president’s power to appoint the justices proved to be a decisive factor for a significant number of voters in 2016. This election, that is unlikely to change. Pollsters will no doubt be watching whether voters’ confidence in the court will likewise remain steady.