Law and Order

1/3 of Americans Say U.S. Supreme Court Is "Too Conservative"

Plurality still says court's balance between liberal and conservative is "about right"

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The new term for the U.S. Supreme Court begins this week, with the court agreeing to hear cases involving controversial issues such as job discrimination, capital punishment, and the rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A recent Gallup Poll finds that although the plurality of Americans consider the ideological orientation of the Supreme Court to be "about right," nearly one-third of Americans -- the highest level in more than a decade -- call it "too conservative." More than half of Americans approve of the job the court is doing, which is lower than approval has been at some recent points but still much higher than public approval of President George W. Bush and Congress. Public trust in the Supreme Court shows little change this year, with just about 7 in 10 Americans saying they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the judicial branch of government.

Job Approval of the Court in Detail

According to Gallup's annual Governance survey, conducted Sept. 14-16, 2007, 51% of Americans approve of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job, while 39% disapprove. Americans' approval of the Supreme Court is down from 60% just prior to the start of last year's term. The court's ratings dropped to this level this spring following its controversial ruling that banned so-called "partial-birth" abortions. 

Gallup has tracked Americans' approval of the Supreme Court since 2000, and attitudes toward the court have shown substantial fluctuation, typically dropping after the court rules on a controversial case. (However, there was no change in the overall approval rating of the court following its arguably most controversial case -- the vote recount case in 2000 that essentially decided that year's presidential election between Bush and former Vice President Al Gore).

Roughly 6 in 10 Americans approved of the Supreme Court from August 2000 through July 2003. Following decisions in 2003 overturning a Texas statute that had prohibited certain sexual acts, mainly between same-sex partners, and rejecting the University of Michigan's use of a point system that included race as a factor for admission, Americans' approval ratings of the court declined to 52% in September 2003 and remained at that level in 2004.

In June 2005, after ruling on controversial cases involving government power to seize private property, medical marijuana, and the displaying of religious figures on government buildings, 42% approved and 48% disapproved of the court, easily its worst rating in the past eight years.

The public's assessment of the Supreme Court rebounded in 2005 to 56% and returned to 60% in last year's Governance survey. However, the court's approval rating has fallen back to the lower 50% range in two polls this year.

Americans' overall ratings of the Supreme Court are related to their party affiliation. The vast majority of Republicans, 69%, say they approve of the job the court is doing. Approval is lower among independents, at 47%, and lower still among Democrats, at 41%.  

Following the Supreme Court's ruling in the Bush-Gore case in 2000, Democrats' ratings of the court plummeted (from 70% in the summer of 2000 to 42% in January 2001), while the rating increased substantially among Republicans (60% to 80%). The court's ratings among Republicans and Democrats were much more similar to one another from 2002 through 2005. But, as a more ideologically conservative court came into place following the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to replace William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor, Republicans' ratings improved substantially, while Democrat's ratings remained below 50%.

Too Conservative, Too Liberal, About Right?

Americans are more likely to say that the current Supreme Court is too conservative (32%) rather than too liberal (21%), although the largest percentage, 43%, say the court is about right. The current results are very similar to those measured just prior to the start of the court's 2006 term, with the percentage saying the court is too conservative at its highest point to date (albeit just one percentage point higher than last year).

The last two surveys mark a bit of a departure from what Gallup had previously observed, most likely in response to the perceived conservative ideology of the court following the appointments of the two new justices in late 2005 and early 2006. Prior to 2005, the public was either more likely to say the court was too liberal than to say it was too conservative, or just as likely to say it was too conservative as too liberal.

Since Gallup first started tracking this measure in 1991, Americans have been most likely to say the court is neither too liberal nor too conservative but actually about right. 

It is clear that perceptions of the court's ideology depend on one's own political views. Democrats are much more likely to perceive the current court as too conservative (47%) than Republicans are to say it is too liberal (26%). A solid majority of Republicans (58%), compared with 31% of Democrats, say the court is about right. Independents are more inclined to view the court as too conservative as opposed to too liberal, but the plurality says it is about right.

Views of the Supreme Court by Party Affiliation
(Sept. 14-16, 2007)

Republicans

Independents

Democrats

%

%

%

Too liberal

26

21

16

Too conservative

12

33

47

About right

58

41

31

Public Trust in the Judicial Branch of Government

Since the early 1970s, Gallup has periodically asked Americans to assess their overall trust and confidence in the judicial branch of government headed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the current poll, 69% of Americans say they have a "great deal" (15%) or "fair amount" (54%) of confidence in the Supreme Court, while 29% express little or no confidence in the court. 

Americans' trust and confidence in the court has not shown much change in recent years, hovering around 66%. In fact, a solid majority of Americans have said they have at least a fair amount of confidence in the judicial branch of government each time Gallup has asked this question. The high point came in 1999, when 80% said they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence; the low point was in 1976, when 63% were confident.

Although a solid majority of Republicans, independents, and Democrats express trust and confidence in the judicial branch and Supreme Court, this confidence rating remains much higher among Republicans (84% great deal/fair amount) than it does among independents (65%) or Democrats (61%).

Rating the Three Branches of Government

As they typically have done in recent years, Americans rate the Supreme Court at least as positively as they do the president and more positively than Congress on two key measures -- job approval and overall trust and confidence.

The court's 51% approval rating is much higher than the 36% job approval rating for President George W. Bush and the 24% job approval rating for Congress taken in the same poll.  

Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the Supreme Court, compared with 50% for Congress and 43% for the president. In recent years, the public's confidence in Congress and the president has been steadily declining, while confidence in the court has remained very stable. 

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,010 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 14-16, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum 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.

3. Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job?

Approve

Disapprove

No opinion

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

51

39

10

 

 

 

2007 May 10-13

51

36

13

2006 Sep 7-10

60

32

8

2005 Sep 12-15

56

36

8

2005 Jun 24-26

42

48

10

2004 Sep 13-15

51

39

10

2003 Sep 8-10

52

38

10

2003 Jul 7-9

59

33

8

2002 Sep 5-8

60

29

11

2001 Sep 7-10

58

28

14

2001 Jun 11-17

62

25

13

2001 Jan 10-14

59

34

7

2000 Aug 29-Sep 5

62

29

9

12. As you know, our federal government is made up of three branches: an Executive branch, headed by the President: a Judicial branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court: and a Legislative branch, made up of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. First, let me ask you how much trust and confidence you have at this time in the Executive branch headed by the President, the Judicial branch headed by the US Supreme Court, and the Legislative branch, consisting of the US Senate and House of Representatives-- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

B. The Judicial branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

15

54

23

6

1

 

 

 

 

 

2006 Sep 7-10

15

54

21

7

3

2005 Sep 12-15

13

55

25

6

1

2004 Sep 13-15

14

51

27

6

2

2003 Sep 8-10

13

54

27

5

1

2002 Sep 5-8

17

58

18

5

2

2001 Sep 7-10

17

57

20

4

2

2000 Jul 6-9

23

52

18

6

1

1999 Feb 4-8

29

51

13

5

2

1998 Dec 28-29

27

51

16

4

2

1997 May 30-Jun 1

19

52

22

5

2

1976 Jun

16

47

26

6

4

1974 Apr

17

54

20

5

5

1972 May

17

49

24

7

4

18. In general, do you think the current Supreme Court is too liberal, too conservative, or just about right?

Too
liberal

Too
conservative

About
right

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

21

32

43

5

 

 

 

 

2006 Sep 7-10

21

31

43

6

2005 Sep 12-15

25

25

45

5

2004 Sep 13-15

28

27

40

5

2003 Sep 8-10

31

25

39

5

2001 Sep 7-10

22

25

46

7

1995 Jul 7-9

31

20

41

8

1993 Jun 18-21 ^

22

24

45

9

^ Asked of a half sample.

Trends for Comparison:In its recent rulings, do you think the Supreme Court has been too liberal, too conservative, or just about right?

Too
liberal

Too
conservative

About
right

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2003 Jul 7-9

31

15

48

6

2000 Aug 29-Sep 5

27

16

49

8

1991 July 11-14

20

25

39

16

Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/28861/OneThird-Americans-Say-US-Supreme-Court-Too-Conservative.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030