May 11, 2018

Growing share of Americans say Supreme Court should base its rulings on what Constitution means today

A majority of Americans (55%) now say the U.S. Supreme Court should base its rulings on what the Constitution “means in current times,” while 41% say rulings should be based on what it “meant as originally written,” according to a recent Pew Research Center report on American democratic values.

This represents a shift in public opinion, which was divided on this question for more than a decade. When Pew Research Center last asked the question in October 2016, 46% said the high court should base its rulings on what the document means in current times, while an identical share (46%) said rulings should be based on what it meant when originally written.

Nearly eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (78%) now say rulings should be based on the Constitution’s meaning in current times, higher than at any previous point on record and up 9 percentage points from 2016 (69%). Just three-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners now say the same, an 11-point increase from 2016 but little changed from GOP views in the years prior.

About three-quarters of conservative Republicans (77%) continue to say the Supreme Court should base its rulings on the Constitution’s original meaning rather than its meaning in current times (21%). But moderate and liberal Republicans are more divided: 50% favor an interpretation based on the Constitution’s original meaning, compared with 46% who say the court should base its rulings on a current interpretation.

Ideological differences are less pronounced among Democrats. Liberal Democrats (88%) overwhelmingly say the Supreme Court should base its rulings on the Constitution’s meaning in current times, as do a majority (70%) of conservative and moderate Democrats.

Views on constitutional interpretation also vary by age, even within both partisan coalitions. Americans 50 and older are divided, with 47% saying the Supreme Court should base its rulings on what the Constitution currently means and 49% saying they favor an interpretation based on the document’s original meaning. But among Americans younger than 50, 64% say the high court should base rulings on the Constitution’s current meaning, compared with 33% who say decisions should be based on the original meaning.

While majorities of Republicans in all age groups say the high court should interpret the Constitution as it was originally written, younger Republicans are somewhat less likely than older Republicans to say this (61% of Republicans ages 18 to 49, versus 72% of those 50 and older).

Similarly, while majorities of Democrats across age groups say the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution in a current context, older Democrats are less likely than younger to say this (70% of Democrats ages 50 and older, compared with 86% of Democrats ages 18 to 49).

Topics: Supreme Court, Federal Government

  1. is a research assistant at Pew Research Center.