Americans' Confidence in High Court Declines

by Joseph Carroll, Gallup Poll Assistant Editor

Current rating among lowest ever

For many Americans, June represents a time to plan summer vacations, to lounge by the pool, or to relax after a long school year. For some, though, especially the political junkies among us, it is most notable as the time when the U.S. Supreme Court hands down a flurry of decisions before taking its annual recess.

A recent Gallup Poll*, conducted May 23-26, asked Americans to rate their level of confidence in 15 institutions in American society, including the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ranks in the middle of the list, much lower than the military, police, and organized religion, but higher than HMOs, big business, Congress, and organized labor.

Overall, 4 in 10 Americans say they have a great deal (16%) or quite a lot (25%) of confidence in the court. This 41% confidence rating is among the lowest Gallup has ever found for this institution, and it perpetuates a gradual decline in the public's confidence over the past three years.

In 1973, about four months after the court ruled on the controversial Roe v. Wade case, Gallup found that 44% of Americans expressed confidence in the Supreme Court. Americans' confidence in the court showed only modest fluctuations over the next decade, but by 1984, ratings increased to the point at which a slim majority of Americans, 51%, expressed confidence in the court. Confidence reached its high point over the next several years, with a 56% confidence rating in 1985 and another 56% rating in 1988.

The low point in the public's assessment of the Supreme Court came during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991. In mid-October of that year, 39% of Americans said they were confident in the Supreme Court. Throughout the rest of the 1990s, confidence in the court gradually increased, reaching 50% in 1997 and 1998.

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, half of Americans expressed confidence in the court. Views have gradually declined since then, falling to 47% in 2003, 46% in 2004, and 41% this year. This decline in recent years may result from some controversial court decisions on affirmative action and homosexual relations.

Partisan Differences

Generally, Republicans' and Democrats' opinions about the court aren't vastly divergent. When there are differences, there is a tendency for Republicans to express higher levels confidence in the court than Democrats express.

Republicans and Democrats were not radically different in their confidence with the court from 1973 until 1984, at which point 57% of Republicans and only 44% of Democrats said they were confident in the court.

Throughout President George H.W. Bush's term in office, Republicans expressed higher levels of confidence in the court than Democrats did, and during the Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, there was a 10-point partisan difference, with 46% of Republicans and 36% of Democrats expressing confidence.

Over the next several years, there were only slight partisan variations on this measure. But, in 1999, Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to express confidence in the court, by a 58% to 47% margin. There were no extremely controversial rulings during this time, but this may have been the result of Democrats rallying during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton earlier that year.

The most dramatic party differences followed the court's decision regarding the Florida vote recount that effectively ended the presidential election in 2000 and allowed Bush to become president.

In June 2000, Gallup found only minor differences between Republicans' and Democrats' level of confidence in the court. But, by December, after the court decision that gave Bush the presidency, there was a 27-point difference, with 67% of Republicans expressing confidence in the Supreme Court while only 40% of Democrats did the same. These differences settled down slightly by June 2001. That poll found 61% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats saying they were confident in the court.

Over the past two years, the partisan gap that emerged after the 2000 election has gradually diminished, and today Republicans are only slightly more likely than Democrats to have confidence in the Supreme Court.

Ideological Differences

The current poll finds that self-described conservatives, moderates, and liberals are roughly even in their overall confidence in the Supreme Court. Since the 2000 presidential election, liberals have shown only modest variations in confidence ratings, while confidence among conservatives has declined steadily. Conservatives' ratings of the court now are at roughly the same levels they were in June 1999 and June 2000.

In 1998, Gallup found that at least half of conservatives (50%) and moderates (54%) expressed confidence in the Supreme Court, while 45% of liberals felt this way. In June 1999 and June 2000, confidence among conservatives dropped to 43%, while moderates and liberals continued to rate the court roughly the same way as they did in 1998.

After the court's ruling in the 2000 presidential election, confidence among conservatives surged to 58%, but decreased slightly among moderates and liberals. Over the next two years, conservatives became less likely to say they were confident, but at least half still expressed confidence.

Gallup's 2004 survey, the first conducted after the court's controversial ruling on homosexual relations in June 2003, found that ratings among conservatives dropped to 44%, and were now at roughly the same level as liberals (43%). A slight majority of moderates, 53%, said they were confident in the court last year. This year, views among conservatives and liberals remained unchanged, but dropped 12 points among moderates.

Bottom Line

The public's current confidence rating in the U.S. Supreme Court is among the lowest that Gallup has found historically. Republicans and Democrats currently show only modest differences in their views of the court -- a much different picture from what Gallup found after the 2000 election controversy when Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to express confidence. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals have roughly the same level of confidence in the court, but since 2000, ratings of the court among conservatives have dropped significantly.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 23-26, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. 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.

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