As Barack Obama considers potential nominees to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, opinion about the ideological makeup of the court is divided with 24% describing the court as “liberal”, and an equal number saying it is “conservative.” A plurality (36%) considers the current Supreme Court to be “middle of the road.” Far fewer see the court as conservative today than was the case three years ago. In July 2007, 36% said the court was conservative and just 14% said the court was liberal.
Views of the Supreme Court’s ideological leanings have shifted across party lines. Today, more Republicans see the court as liberal rather than conservative by a three-to-one margin (33% to 11%). In 2007, just 18% described the court as liberal while 26% saw it as conservative. In both years, Democrats have been more likely to see the court as conservative rather than liberal, but by a much narrower margin today (34% conservative, 20% liberal) than in 2007 (48%, 11%). As many independents now say the Supreme Court is liberal (24%) as conservative (23%), but in 2007 far more viewed the court as conservative (37%) than liberal (13%).
Conservative Republicans are the most likely to see the court as liberal (39%), while liberal Democrats are the most likely to describe it as conservative (41%). Again, these views have shifted over the past three years. In 2007, just 22% of conservative Republicans said the court was liberal, and 66% of liberal Democrats saw it as conservative.
Has the Court Shifted?
When asked to assess whether the court’s position has changed over the past few decades, 43% say that the court is about the same now as it has been. But among those who see shifts in the court’s ideology, more say the court has become more liberal (28%) than say it has moved in a more conservative direction (19%).
There are sizable partisan differences. While 44% of Republicans say they court has become more liberal over the last 20 years, 35% say it has stayed about the same and just 10% think the court has become more conservative. By comparison, about half of Democrats (51%) say the court has not changed much, while 25% say the court has become more conservative and 16% say the court has become more liberal. Among independents, slightly more see a liberal (28%) than conservative (22%) change in the court, while 41% say the court has stayed about the same.
Both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are more likely than others in their party to say the court has undergone a shift away from their own ideological leanings over the past 20 years. About half of conservative Republicans (49%) now say the court has become more liberal, while 35% of moderate and liberal Republicans say this. Among Democrats 36% of liberals say the court has become more conservative over the past two decades, compared with 20% of conservative and moderate Democrats.
College graduates are twice as likely as others to say the Supreme Court has become more conservative over this period. About a third of college graduates (33%) say this, compared with just 16% of those with some college experience and 11% of those who have not attended college. Men are also slightly more likely than women to say the court has become more conservative (22% vs. 16%) over the past 20 years.
Who Should Obama Nominate?
When it comes to replacing Justice Stevens, as many want to see Obama nominate someone who would make the court more liberal (27%), as more conservative (28%), while 35% say he should choose someone who will keep the court about the same as it is now. This is similar to the public’s preferences before the nominations of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and John Roberts in 2005.
About half of Republicans (49%), including 59% of conservative Republicans, say Obama should nominate people who will make the court more conservative. By contrast, 45% of Democrats, including two-thirds of liberal Democrats (67%), say Obama should nominate people who will make the court more liberal. Among independents, 39% want to see no change in the ideology of the court, with an equal number preferring a nominee who moves the court in a conservative or liberal direction (26% ea
Importance of Supreme Court Nominee
Four-in-ten Americans (40%) now say the choice of the next Supreme Court justice is very important to them personally. This is somewhat lower than the percentage saying this in July 2005, shortly after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement (47%).
As in 2005, Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say the choice of the next justice is very important to them (46% and 43%, respectively). In particular, those on the opposite ends of the ideological and partisan spectrum are the most likely to say this; 56% of both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats say the choice is very important to them. Independents are less inclined than partisans to view the choice of the next justice as personally important (36%).
African Americans are now significantly more likely than whites to say the choice of the next justice is of personal importance. A majority of blacks (56%) now say this, compared with just 37% of whites. Older Americans are also more likely than others to say the choice of the next member of the court is very important to them. A majority (53%) of those age 65 and older say this, compared with just 43% of those ages 50-64 and only 35% of those younger than 50.