5 facts about the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court holds a unique place in American government. Sitting justices do not have set terms, and they can influence public policy long after the presidents who nominated them and the senators who confirmed them have departed. Partisans have often battled over these nominations because of the court’s ability to reshape or strike down laws favored by one side or another.
The politics surrounding court appointments has been apparent since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. President Obama nominated federal appellate court justice Merrick B. Garland to replace him, but Republicans in the Senate said they would not hold hearings or a vote on any nomination until after the next president was elected.
As the court’s new term gets underway, here are five facts on how Americans view the Supreme Court.
1Americans’ opinions of the court hit a 30-year low last year after controversial decisions, but have rebounded after a quieter term. In July 2015, 43% of Americans regarded the Supreme Court unfavorably – a 30-year high – while 48% had a positive opinion. At the time, views of the court were strongly linked to how Americans felt about the court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act and legalization of same-sex marriage. This year, with the court short a justice, there were fewer high-profile decisions, and Americans’ views of the court have improved. In August, 60% had a favorable view, while just 32% saw the court unfavorably, back in line with the generally positive opinions found before 2015.
2There is a significant partisan gap in views of the court. Republican views of the court have moved back into positive territory this year. In July 2015, shortly after major rulings about the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage, just 33% of Republicans had a favorable opinion of the court, while 61% had an unfavorable view. As of this August, 57% of Republicans regarded the court favorably while 39% did not. Democrats’ views of the court had remained favorable after the 2015 term and have since grown even more positive: 73% had a favorable opinion in August, while just 20% had an unfavorable one.
3Partisans have starkly different views over how the justices should interpret the Constitution. Justice Scalia championed an “originalist” view of the Constitution that held it should be interpreted as written – a philosophy shared by 69% of Republicans overall, according to a 2014 survey. Democratic opinion goes the other way: 70% said the court should base its rulings on an understanding of the Constitution’s meaning in current times. The gap is even bigger across ideological lines. About nine-in-ten (92%) of those who are consistently conservative on a 10-question scale of political values said interpretation should be based on original intent. By contrast, 83% of those with consistently liberal political values said the justices’ rulings should be based on the Constitution’s meaning in current times.
4Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are particularly likely to see court appointments as very important to their vote. Overall, 65% of registered voters said court selections were very important to their vote in June, ranking it ninth on a list of 14 issues we asked about. But among conservative Republican and Republican-leaning voters, 77% said this was important to their vote, as did 69% of self-described liberal Democrats and Democratic leaners. The issue was regarded as less important by moderate and liberal Republicans, and by moderate and conservative Democrats.
5Most Americans disagree with the Republican-controlled Senate’s decision to not hold hearings on Obama’s court nominee. By a 56% to 38% margin, Americans said in February that the Senate should hold hearings on Merrick Garland and not wait until the next president was elected. In a March survey, 46% said Garland should be confirmed while 30% disagreed, with 24% expressing no opinion.
Note: This is an update of a post originally published Feb. 17, 2016.
Bruce Drake is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.