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The Supreme Court has been in the news quite a lot lately. First was Chief Justice John Roberts’ jab at President Obama during a speech to University of Alabama law students. (Roberts called the president’s description of the Citizens United case in his State of the Union speech “very troubling” and said that the SOTU has “degenerated into a political pep rally.”) Then Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest justice at age 89 and one of the longest serving members the Court, said he would soon decide whether this term would be his last. The search for a new justice will put Court decisions in the spotlight and tie the Senate up for weeks. And finally, there has been some speculation that the Court could be asked to rule on the constitutionality of the health care legislation if it passes.
While there are no new polls that capture public reaction to these developments, a substantial body of survey data provides a sense of how the public views the Court. Institutions such as the Court, whose missions are relatively clearly and narrowly defined in the public mind, tend to fare better in public opinion than those that are not.
Looking at two central institutions, the military and Congress, illustrates the point. The military’s job is clear. Its mission is to protect and defend the country, and Americans of every race, religion and age group think it does its job well. Scandals as different as the 1991 Tailhook sexual harassment incident and the 2004 prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib did not have lasting effects on the military’s standing with the public.
Then there is Congress, an institution with myriad responsibilities and deep partisan divisions. There’s a lot to criticize, and the public does so loudly. Scandals involving congressmen tend to reinforce long-standing impressions that politics is corrupt.
The Court’s mission is clearly defined in the public’s mind. For the most part the justices have a low profile, and the institution’s high marks seem to suggest that the public likes it that way. In June 1989, after the late William Rehnquist had served on the Court for 17 years, only 9% in a Washington Post poll could identify him as the chief justice.
When Gallup asked people in 2009 about their trust and confidence in the judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court, 76% said they had a great deal or a fair amount. When asked about the legislative branch, only 45% did.
Harris Interactive recently updated its question, asked yearly since 1971, on confidence in the people in charge of running in key institutions. Thirty-one percent had a great deal of confidence in the people running the Supreme Court, 46% had only some and only 21% had hardly any. High confidence in those running the military was much greater than high confidence in the Court, and confidence in congressional leaders was much lower. The Court was one of the top five institutions in the poll in terms of high confidence.
After the Court decided the famous Bush v. Gore case, overall ratings of the Court did not change in Gallup’s data, but partisan divisions did appear. Republicans had more confidence in the Court in 2001 than in 2000, and Democrats had less. Today in the new Harris poll, Republicans, Democrats and independents don’t disagree much on the Court.
In a 2009 Gallup question half of the respondents said the Court was about right, while 28% said it was too liberal and 19% too conservative. When asked about specific recent confirmations, about the same number said Justice Sonia Sotomayor (appointed by Barack Obama) was too liberal (28%) as said Samuel Alito (29%) and John Roberts (24%) were too conservative. Alito and Roberts were appointed by George W. Bush. Large pluralities said all three were about right, and majorities in separate questions favored Senate confirmation of all three.
American support for the Supreme Court is solid. As long as the Court sticks to business and keeps its relatively low profile, the people will continue regarding it as successful.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.
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