The latest session of the Supreme Court saw a number of contentious decisions — decisions that were made amidst a very partisan political climate.
Americans are losing faith in all branches of government. Support for Congress is at an all time low of 7 percent. President Barack Obama’s approval rating stands at 41 percent in the wake of intensifying sectarian violence in Iraq — a score near his personal low of 40 percent, but significantly better than the job performance scores earned by George W. Bush and Richard Nixon at the corresponding moments of their presidencies. Meanwhile, the public’s confidence in the president is 29 percent. Further, the public’s confidence in the Supreme Court rests at 30 percent, which is not a record low nor a significantly strong score. The much-lower score of Congress is not surprising; Americans have always expressed lower confidence in the legislative branch than in the judicial or executive branches. Nor is it surprising that Americans are dissatisfied with their leaders. While partisan politics in Congress are the result of a more polarized electorate, the resulting stalemate is nonetheless problematic. Similarly, the president’s loss of popularity has damaged “his ability to govern and rally the public behind his favored policies,” as Gallup noted.
Unlike Congress and the president, the Supreme Court — with its nine unelected justices who serve indefinite terms without facing the rigors of elections — is immune to public pressure. Seemingly, that immunity means the court should not be concerned about its 30 percent approval rating. But as Gallup noted in the analysis of a June survey of public confidence in government institutions, the Supreme Court’s loss of public confidence should be concerning because it “threatens and complicates the U.S. system of government.” Gallup’s findings beg several important questions: how significant is the public’s loss of confidence; is this loss of confidence merely part of a broader disillusionment with government or has there been a profound changed within the court; and, are justices guiding American politics rather than simply interpreting the constitution?
The results mark a new low in the public’s confidence in the United States’ highest court, a measure the research firm first began tracking in 1973. The highest reading ever recorded came in 1985, when 56 percent of Americans expressed confidence in the institution. In 1988 — after President Ronald Reagan had made all of his court appointments, nominating Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Sandra Day O’Connor, and elevating William Rehnquist to Chief Justice — the same measure of confidence was recorded. The years between 1973 and 2006, the nation’s highest court averaged ratings in 40 and 50 percent range. But in 2007, after George W. Bush appointed John Roberts as chief justice and Samuel Alito as an associate justice, the court’s score dropped “sharply to 34 [percent], along with similar declines in confidence in the other two branches of government.” Since that decline, Americans confidence in the Supreme Court has not risen higher than 40 percent.