Supreme Court Gets Average Grade, But Is It Too Political?

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The Supreme Court is like any political entity; it has its ups and downs in public and party reception. Recently it’s been seeing some recovery in approval ratings, back up to 56 percent in April after hitting one of the lowest numbers at 48 percent last year in July, following the Voting Rights Act and same-sex marriage rulings, according to Pew Research.

Over the long haul, a 56 percent is not particularly good, especially compared to 2008 when views were considerable more positive, closer to the 70s. Unsurprisingly, the popularity of the Court rises and falls along partisan lines, and does so following big rulings, as is shown in Pew’s table shown below.

There was a predictable dive in Republican approval following the ruling on President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill, but since then both sides of the aisle have been looking up. Democratic opinion is recovering from its 2013 dip, and Republicans are considerably closer in opinion than they were in 2012 when they reached a 38 percent favorable view. It’s notable, however, that this could change, as many rulings and decisions had not yet taken place at the time of the poll, in late April.

The poll was taken before the court gave its recent ruling on Christian prayer at a New York town hall meeting, finding that the practice was acceptable under the First Amendment. It was also taken before the court chose not to hear a case that would deal with the right to bear arms as it applies outside the home, a fact the NRA and those on the far right will undoubtedly be displeased with. And finally, it was taken just days before the Supreme Court ruled to uphold Obama’s coal pollution policy — a major pat on the back for some Democrats, but a problematic regulation issue for a number of states.

As a result, the next time Pew Research conducts a poll, there could be some interesting changes comparatively, assuming that these rulings show some shift in opinion. It’s unlikely that any will be as powerful as the Affordable Care Act decision, but there’s every possibility that they will alter political opinions on the court. Only time will tell.

But ultimately, unlike Obama, who needs to consider his party’s popularity, or incumbent senators and other politicians aiming at reelection, the Supreme Court justices don’t need to concern themselves so much with the public view. They have no fear of elections season and no need to listen to their party demands and pressures. Which is perhaps why both sides of the aisle feel that the court leans the other way. Pew data shows that 10 percent of Republicans think that the Court tends to be more conservative, while 45 percent think it’s liberal. On the other hand, 40 percent of Democrats think that the SCOTUS leans right, and only 18 percent consider it to be liberal.

There are topics such as same-sex marriage, which both conservatives and liberals likely take issue with — conservatives in that the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down and liberals in that the Supreme Court chose not to make same-sex marriage allowable in all states, rather waiting while states took steps to change their own laws. Basically nobody is happy — which is perhaps as it should be.

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