Nearly 6 in 10 Approve of Supreme Court

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Past partisan divide in evaluations no longer exists

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The Supreme Court recently concluded its latest term with landmark decisions on affirmative action in higher education and homosexual relations. The latter decision sparked the evangelist Pat Robertson to urge his followers to pray for the retirement of one or more of the current justices. But the latest Gallup Poll shows Americans are much more likely to approve than disapprove of the job the court is doing. These levels of approval have not changed materially over the last few years. While a plurality says the court's recent rulings have been about right, Americans are twice as likely to characterize them as being too liberal rather than too conservative. Republicans were much more positive than Democrats about the court in the immediate aftermath of its December 2000 decision on the Florida recount situation, but that partisan divide has now disappeared. Many Republicans have become more negative in their evaluations of the court in recent months.

According to the poll, conducted July 7-9, 59% of Americans approve and 33% disapprove of the job the Supreme Court is doing. That is more or less unchanged from the previous reading from September 2002, when 60% approved and 29% disapproved. More generally, about 6 in 10 Americans have approved of the court in the last four years.

Opinion of the Way the Supreme Court
Is Handling Its Job

However, the relative stability in Americans' evaluations of the high court obscures a rather significant partisan gap that had existed for the last several years. Following the Supreme Court's ruling in the December 2000 Bush v. Gore case, Republicans' and Democrats' views of the court diverged sharply. This decision ended Al Gore's legal attempts to force a recount of contested presidential election votes in Florida, which effectively awarded the presidency to George W. Bush. Shortly after the decision, a January 2001 poll showed a 38-point gap in Republicans' and Democrats' approval ratings of the Supreme Court, with 80% of Republicans approving (up from 60% several months earlier) versus only 42% of Democrats (down from 70%).

That partisan gap narrowed by half within the first six months of Bush's inauguration, and then gradually shrank to only nine points by last fall, when 66% of Republicans and 57% of Democrats approved of the court's performance. But in the latest poll, conducted just after the conclusion of the court's 2002-2003 term, Republicans and Democrats are at parity on this measure, mostly resulting from a drop in approval of the court among Republicans. Currently, 59% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans approve of the court's performance. Over the last four years, independents' ratings have been stable between 54% and 61% approval.

Approval of the Way the Supreme Court
Is Handling Its Job: By Party

An analysis of the current levels of court approval shows significant differences by church attendance and by ideology. Less than half (48%) of those who attend church on a weekly basis approve of the Supreme Court, compared with 64% of those who attend church less often. Liberals (62%) and moderates (65%) are more likely to give a positive evaluation of the court than are conservatives (53%).

Recent Rulings More Likely to Be Characterized as Being Too Liberal

Many conservatives, including Robertson, have criticized the court's rulings that upheld affirmative action programs in higher education (though it did strike down the specific program the University of Michigan used in undergraduate admissions) and declared a Texas anti-sodomy law unconstitutional. These decisions are more in line with the views of liberals than conservatives on these issues.

Nearly half of Americans, 48%, say the Supreme Court's recent rulings have been about right from an ideological perspective. But those who say they are too liberal outnumber those who say they are too conservative by a 2-to-1 margin (31% to 15%).

Recent Rulings: Too Liberal,
Too Conservative, or Just About Right?

On this measure, a plurality of Americans typically say the court's rulings are "about right," but the proportion that says they are too liberal or too conservative tends to vary. For example, when this question was last asked in September 2001, the public was divided as to whether the decisions were too liberal (22%) or too conservative (25%).

The current tendency to perceive the court as more liberal is similar to what Gallup Polls found in July 1995 and August and September 2000. The 1995 poll came shortly after the Supreme Court invalidated a Colorado initiative that would have prevented homosexuals from seeking government protection against discrimination, and ruled that the Virginia Military Institute must admit women -- both decisions that would likely please liberals. The 2000 poll was conducted a few months after Supreme Court rulings that voided a Nebraska statute outlawing partial-birth abortion, but gave private organizations the right to choose their group's leaders, even if it excluded homosexuals -- a more ideologically mixed set of opinions.

The Next Nominee?

Prior to the conclusion of the Supreme Court's latest term, there was much speculation as to the possibility of one or more justices retiring. The court has not had a change in members since 1994, when Stephen Breyer was appointed to the court. However, as of yet, no justices have announced their intentions to retire.

Even before its recent rulings and the Robertson controversy, the public expressed a preference that the next nominee to the Supreme Court be ideologically conservative rather than liberal. A May 30-June 1 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found 57% of Americans said they would want the next court nominee to have conservative political views (15% say very conservative), while 38% said they would prefer a nominee with liberal political views (9% say very liberal).

Suppose one of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices retires at the end of this term. Would you like the person nominated to fill that vacancy on the Supreme Court to have political views that are – [ROTATED: very conservative, somewhat conservative, somewhat liberal, (or) very liberal]?

 

Very
conser-vative

Somewhat
conser-vative

Somewhat
liberal

Very
liberal

No
opinion

2003 May 30-Jun 1

15%

42

29

9

5



As one might expect, views on this item are strongly partisan. Eighty-six percent of Republicans would prefer a conservative nominee, while just 13% would prefer someone who is more liberal. Independents are divided in their views, with 48% preferring a conservative and 44% preferring a liberal. Democrats show a preference for a liberal nominee (55%) to a conservative (41%), but do not show as overwhelming a preference as do Republicans.

One reason for the preference for a conservative over a liberal justice is straightforward: There are more conservatives in the U.S. population than there are liberals. The current poll breaks down as follows: 38% identify as conservatives, 43% as moderates, and only 18% as liberals. The question (see above) asked respondents to choose between a conservative and a liberal justice without giving the explicit choice of a "moderate" justice. The data show that in these circumstances, even though independents break even in their preferences for a conservative versus a liberal justice, the preponderance of conservatives over liberals tips the balance toward the overall preference for a conservative justice.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,006 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 7-9, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects 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

%

%

%

National Adults

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

Republicans

2003 Jul 7-9

57

35

8

2002 Sep 5-8

66

23

11

2001 Sep 7-10

69

19

12

2001 Jun 11-17

74

18

8

2001 Jan 10-14

80

15

5

2000 Aug 29-Sep 5

60

35

5

Independents

2003 Jul 7-9

61

31

8

2002 Sep 5-8

58

30

12

2001 Sep 7-10

52

31

17

2001 Jun 11-17

59

26

15

2001 Jan 10-14

54

38

8

2000 Aug 29-Sep 5

57

34

9

Democrats

2003 Jul 7-9

59

33

8

2002 Sep 5-8

57

33

10

2001 Sep 7-10

55

32

13

2001 Jun 11-17

54

32

14

2001 Jan 10-14

42

50

8

2000 Aug 29-Sep 5

70

18

12



55. 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

2001 Sep 7-10 ^

22

25

46

7

2000 Aug 29-Sep 5

27

16

49

8

1995 Jul 7-9 ^

31

20

41

8

1993 Jun 18-21 ^ †

22

24

45

9

1991 July 11-14

20

25

39

16

^ WORDING: In general, do you think the current Supreme Court is too liberal, too conservative, or just about right?

† Asked of a half sample.



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