For the second time in four years, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin its term on Monday with only eight of nine justices, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in mid-September. The high court last carried out its duties with eight justices after the death of Antonin Scalia in 2016.
As it did four years ago, the death of a sitting justice has thrust the court into the center of a bruising political campaign for the White House. Republican President Donald Trump has nominated federal appellate judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy left by Ginsburg, even as Trump’s opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, calls for confirmation proceedings to be postponed until after voters have cast their ballots for president. Republicans control the U.S. Senate and have vowed to move forward with Barrett’s confirmation over the objections of Biden and other Democrats.
As the high court gets back to work and hears arguments in a new set of cases – including one that seeks to invalidate the 2010 Affordable Care Act – here are five facts about the Supreme Court, based on surveys and other recent analyses by Pew Research Center:
In the summer, before Ginsburg’s death, seven-in-ten U.S. adults said they had a favorable view of the Supreme Court. That included three-quarters of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic leaners, according to an online survey using the Center’s American Trends Panel.
The overall share of Americans with a favorable opinion of the court in August 2020 was little changed from a year earlier, when 69% expressed a positive view. But the share of Republicans with a favorable opinion declined 10 percentage points in that span (from 85% to 75%), and the share of Democrats with a positive view rose 10 points (from 57% to 67%).
Over the longer term, the share of Americans who see the high court favorably has risen from a 30-year low in 2015, according to a separate telephone survey this summer. In that survey, 62% of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of the court, up from 48% five years ago. Most of that change was among Republicans: Seven-in-ten had a favorable view of the court in August, up from just a third in 2015.
Trump has appointed two justices – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – since taking office in 2017.
The largest share of Americans see the court as “middle of the road” ideologically, rather than conservative or liberal, according to the online survey conducted before Ginsburg’s death. A narrow majority of adults (56%) said this, while three-in-ten viewed the court as conservative and 12% viewed it as liberal. But these attitudes varied considerably by party. Around two-thirds of Republicans (66%) said the court is middle of the road ideologically, while 12% said it is conservative and 20% said it is liberal. Democrats were equally divided between saying the court is middle of the road and conservative (47% each), while just 4% said it is liberal.
The same survey found that a majority of Americans (65%) believe the Supreme Court has the right amount of power, rather than too much (25%) or too little (8%). There were few partisan differences in these views.
More than half of Americans (55%) said in the summer that 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 had been divided on this question between 2005 and 2016.
Democrats and Republicans have starkly different opinions. Around three-quarters of Democrats (76%) said in the summer survey that the justices should base their rulings on their understanding of what the Constitution means in current times, while two-thirds of Republicans (67%) said the high court should decide cases based on the Constitution’s original meaning.
There are also divisions by age and education. Younger Americans are more likely than their older counterparts to favor rulings based on a current interpretation of the Constitution. Those with more formal education are also more likely to prefer rulings based on an understanding of the document’s current meaning, rather than its original meaning.
The 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.
Barrett, Trump’s pending nominee for the high court, is 48. If confirmed, she would be the youngest member of the court.
Supreme Court justices tend to come from similar backgrounds. Seven of the eight 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 eight current justices attended one of two Ivy League institutions in particular: Harvard or Yale. If confirmed, Barrett would be an exception to that pattern.
Demographically, nearly all Supreme Court justices have been White, non-Hispanic men. Barrett would become just the fifth woman ever to serve on the court, after Sandra Day O’Connor, Ginsburg and current justices Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan. And only three have not been White: 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.