June 12, 2018

5 facts about the Supreme Court

Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, top right, with the other U.S. Supreme Court justices in June 2017, several weeks after his confirmation. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, top right, with the other U.S. Supreme Court justices in June 2017, several weeks after his confirmation. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court holds a unique place in American government. Sitting justices have lifetime tenure and 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.

As the court enters a period in which it is expected to deliver high-profile rulings – and with speculation mounting over whether one or more justices may soon retire – here are five facts about the U.S. Supreme Court, based on surveys and other recent research by Pew Research Center.

1The public’s opinion of the Supreme Court has rebounded after falling to a 30-year low in the summer of 2015. Two-thirds of Americans (66%) view the high court favorably and 28% view it unfavorably, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March. The share of Americans with a favorable view of the court is up 18 percentage points from July 2015, when only around half (48%) approved. The 2015 survey was conducted in the wake of a term that saw the justices uphold the Affordable Care Act and legalize same-sex marriage; it found that views of the court were strongly linked to views of these high-profile issues. 

2Republican views of the court have improved sharply in recent years. About seven-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (71%) have a favorable view of the Supreme Court, according to the March survey. That’s up from 51% in August 2016 – before the election of President Donald Trump and his subsequent appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the court – and more than double the share with a favorable view (33%) in July 2015, after the rulings on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage. GOP views of the court are now as positive as they have been in a decade.

There has been less fluctuation among Democrats. In the March survey, 62% of Democrats and Democratic leaners said they view the Supreme Court favorably. That’s down from 70% in August 2016, but about the same share as in July 2015, when 61% of Democrats had a positive opinion of the court.

3A growing share of Americans (55%) say the Supreme Court should base its rulings on what the Constitution “means in current times,” rather than what it “meant as originally written.” The public previously had been divided on this question for more than a decade. The last time the Center asked – in October 2016 – 46% of Americans said the court should base its rulings on a modern interpretation of the Constitution, while an identical share (46%) said rulings should be based on what the Constitution meant when it was originally written.

Democrats and Republicans have starkly different opinions. Nearly eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (78%) say the justices should base their rulings on what the Constitution means in current times, while two-thirds of Republicans and Republican leaners (67%) say the high court should decide cases based on the Constitution’s original meaning.

There are also divisions by age. Americans younger than 50 are much more likely to favor rulings based on a current interpretation of the Constitution than on what the document meant as originally written (64% vs. 33%). Americans 50 and older are divided, with 47% preferring rulings based on an understanding of the document’s current meaning and 49% preferring rulings based on its original meaning.

4The average tenure of a Supreme Court justice is nearly 17 years, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of biographical data for all 104 former high court justices. (The analysis excluded the current members of the court since their tenure is ongoing.) Not surprisingly, younger appointees tend to stay on the court longer. Those who were younger than 45 when they were sworn in served for an average of 21.6 years. That’s about two years longer than those who were ages 45 to 49 when they took the oath of office; three years longer than those who were 50 to 54; seven years longer than those who were 55 to 59; and nearly a decade longer than those who were ages 60 and older.

Gorsuch, the Supreme Court’s newest member, was 49 when he joined the court in April 2017. The longest-serving current justice is Anthony Kennedy, who was sworn in around three decades ago, in February 1988.

5Supreme Court justices tend to come from similar backgrounds. Eight of the nine current Supreme Court justices, for example, previously served as federal appeals court judges. (Only Elena Kagan did not.) When looking at all 113 current or former justices, the vast majority had prior experience in private legal practice, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. More than half had previously served as judges on either federal or state courts or held elected office.

Justices also frequently have similar educational backgrounds. About half of all current and former justices went to an Ivy League school. In fact, all nine current justices attended one of two Ivy League institutions in particular: Harvard or Yale.

Demographically, nearly all Supreme Court justices have been white, non-Hispanic men. Just four women have ever served on the court (current justices Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor). And only three nonwhites have served: Current justices Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas (who are Hispanic and black, respectively), along with former justice Thurgood Marshall (who was black).

Note: This is an update of a post originally published Feb. 17, 2016.

Category: 5 Facts

Topics: Supreme Court, Political Polarization, U.S. Political Parties, Political Attitudes and Values

  1. is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of John Gramlich

    is a writer/editor at Pew Research Center.