PRINCETON, NJ -- As the Supreme Court returns to work on Oct. 1, sharp partisan divisions in its job approval rating -- which initially emerged after the court upheld the 2010 healthcare law -- remain. Currently, 57% of Democrats approve, while a similar percentage of Republicans, 56%, disapprove.
Overall, 49% of Americans approve of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job and 40% disapprove. That approval rating is slightly more positive than in Gallup's last update in July, but remains on the lower end of what Gallup has measured since 2000, the first time it asked about Supreme Court approval. Since that time, the court's approval rating has averaged 54%.
Over this time, Republicans' and Democrats' views of the high court have varied, often in response to prominent decisions the court handed down or to changes in court membership. In addition to the recent healthcare rating, a major shift in Supreme Court approval by party occurred after the Bush v. Gore case that decided the 2000 presidential election.
Republicans' approval of the court also jumped in 2005-2006 after George W. Bush named John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the court. Democrats' views improved in 2009 after Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice.
Americans Split as to Whether Court Is Too Liberal or Too Conservative
About as many Americans say the Supreme Court is too liberal (27%) as say it is too conservative (23%). In the first three years of the Obama administration, the public tended to view the court as too liberal rather than too conservative. That was a shift from the latter part of the Bush administration, when more viewed the court as too conservative rather than too liberal.
The plurality, 44%, currently says the Supreme Court's ideology is "about right," which has been the most commonly held view over the last two decades.
Not all political subgroups share the belief that the Supreme Court is ideologically "about right." In particular, a majority of Republicans, 58%, describe the court as "too liberal." The plurality of Democrats and independents say the Supreme Court is about right. To the extent Democrats do not hold that view, they are more likely to say the court is too conservative.
The Supreme Court in theory is a nonpolitical branch of government, but its rulings clearly have political implications. And Americans are often aware of those implications, and adjust their views of the Supreme Court accordingly. That happened after the court upheld the healthcare law earlier this year, prompting an increase in Democratic approval of the court and a decrease in Republican approval -- a pattern that persists to this day.
That partisan gap has left the court with a below-average approval rating as it begins its 2012-2013 term. Even so, Americans continue to express a high degree of trust in the judicial branch of the federal government, and have more trust in it than in the executive or legislative branches.
While it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will play a direct role in this year's presidential election as it did in 2000, the outcome of the election clearly has implications for the court's future. The winner will be able to nominate new Supreme Court justices for any vacancies that occur in the next four years, and, with the court roughly evenly balanced between reliably conservative and reliably liberal justices, the next president's nominations could tip that balance in either direction.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 6-9, 2012, with a random sample of 1,017 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.