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.
The court begins a new term on Oct. 7, taking up cases on guns, abortion and gay rights, among other issues. As the term begins, here are five facts about the 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. Around six-in-ten Americans (62%) have a favorable view of the high court and 31% have an unfavorable view, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in July. The share of Americans with a favorable view of the court is 14 percentage points higher than in 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.
2Republicans and Democrats are increasingly divided in their views of the court. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now have a much more favorable view of the Supreme Court than they did before the election of Donald Trump. Three-quarters of Republicans regard the court favorably – up from 51% in August 2016, before Trump’s election and subsequent appointment of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Republican approval is more than double the share with a favorable view (33%) in July 2015, after the rulings on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage.
By comparison, only around half of Democrats and Democratic leaners (49%) view the Supreme Court favorably, down from 70% in August 2016. Among liberal Democrats, specifically, just 40% have a favorable view of the Supreme Court – the lowest percentage among this group in at least 15 years.
3In a March 2018 survey, 55% of Americans said 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%) said in 2018 that the justices should base their rulings on what the Constitution means in current times, while two-thirds of Republicans and Republican leaners (67%) said the high court should decide cases based on the Constitution’s original meaning.
There are also divisions by age. Americans younger than 50 were much more likely in 2018 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 were 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 February 2017 Pew Research Center analysis of biographical data for 104 former high court justices. (The analysis excluded the members of the court who were serving at the time.) 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.
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 112 current or former justices, the vast majority had prior experience in private legal practice, according to a Pew Research Center analysis in March 2017. 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.