84% say justices should not bring their political views into decisions
Pew Research Center conducted this study to understand the public’s views on the U.S. Supreme Court. For this analysis, we surveyed 5,128 U.S. adults in January 2022. Everyone who took part in this survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which typically attracts only modest attention from the American public, is about to occupy the national spotlight with the possibility of a history-making change among the court’s justices and a series of highly anticipated rulings on matters ranging from abortion to gun policy.
The court enters this pivotal period with its public image as negative as it has been in many years, as Democrats – especially liberal Democrats – increasingly express unfavorable opinions of the court.
In a national survey by Pew Research Center, 54% of U.S. adults say they have a favorable opinion of the Supreme Court while 44% have an unfavorable view. The survey was conducted before Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement from the court and President Joe Biden reiterated his pledge to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court to replace Breyer.
Over the past three years, the share of adults with a favorable view of the court has declined 15 percentage points, according to the new survey, conducted Jan. 10-17 among 5,128 adults on the Center’s American Trends Panel. Looking back further, current views of the court are among the least positive in surveys dating back nearly four decades.
The recent decline in favorability is due in large part to a sharp drop-off among Democrats. Last year, about two-thirds of Democrats said they had a favorable view of the court. Today, that number has fallen to 46%; among liberal Democrats and Democratic leaners, just 36% view the court positively, down from 57%. Favorable views among Republicans have also dipped over the past few years, though are largely unchanged since 2021: Roughly two-thirds continue to hold positive opinions of the court.
Among the other findings from the new survey:
Changing views of the court’s ideology. The share of adults saying the Supreme Court is conservative has increased since 2020, from 30% to 38%. Still, more say the court is “middle of the road” (48%), while 9% say it is liberal. A majority of Democrats (57%) say the court is conservative, compared with 18% of Republicans.
Majority says Supreme Court has the right amount of power. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say the court has the right amount of power, but that has slipped since 2020 (from 65%) as more Americans – Democrats, in particular – say it has too much power.
Broad skepticism that justices are not influenced by politics. Among the overwhelming majority of adults (84%) who say Supreme Court justices should not bring their own political views into the cases they decide, just 16% say they do an excellent or good job in keeping their views out of their decisions. However, both Republicans and Democrats are much more likely to say justices nominated by presidents of their own party achieve this than do justices nominated by presidents from the other party.
Narrow majority of Democrats now view Supreme Court unfavorably
Over the past year, there has been a sharp decline in the share of Democrats and Democratic leaners who hold favorable views of the Supreme Court. In early 2021, roughly two-thirds (65%) said they had a favorable opinion of the court. Today, that has declined 19 percentage points, and Democrats are now more likely to have an unfavorable (53%) than a favorable (46%) view of the court.
There has been a similar-sized drop among conservative and moderate Democrats (19 points) and liberal Democrats (21 points). But while moderate and conservative Democrats are about as likely to hold favorable as they are unfavorable views of the court (53% vs. 46%, respectively), a clear majority of liberal Democrats give the Supreme Court negative ratings (62% favorable vs. 36% unfavorable).
Since last year, Republicans’ views of the court have remained more steady. In 2021, 67% of Republicans said they have a favorable opinion of the court. Today, 65% say this. Over six-in-ten conservative Republicans and moderate and liberal Republicans continue to hold positive views.
Changing views of Supreme Court’s ideology, power
The public is now seeing a more ideologically conservative court than it did two years ago. In August 2020 – prior to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and the subsequent appointment of Amy Coney Barrett – three-in-ten adults said the court was ideologically conservative. Today, 38% of adults say the court is conservative – an 8-point increase.
Democrats’ perceptions of the court’s ideology have also shifted considerably. In 2020, 47% of Democrats and Democratic leaners said the court was conservative, with an identical share saying it was middle of the road. Today, a majority of Democrats (57%) say the court is conservative – a 10-point shift.
Among Republicans, there has been a 6-point shift. Today, 18% say it is conservative, compared with 12% in 2020. Smaller shares now say the court is either middle of the road or liberal.
In the current survey, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – regardless of their ideology – say that the court is middle of the road. Conservative Republicans are about twice as likely as moderate and liberal Republicans, however, to say the court is liberal (21% vs. 10%).
Ideological differences are much wider among Democrats and Democratic leaners. A sizable majority of liberal Democrats say the court is conservative (74%), compared with just 44% of conservative and moderate Democrats. Among this group, about half (49%) say the court is middle of the road.
Adults who have been more attentive to recent cases being heard by the court are also more likely to say the court is conservative. About two-thirds of those who have heard a lot about recent cases say the court’s ideology is conservative, compared with a smaller share of those who have heard a little (44%). Among those who have heard nothing at all, a large majority say the court is middle of the road (60%).
This pattern in attentiveness holds for both parties, though it is particularly pronounced among Democrats. For example, a large majority of Democrats who have read or heard a lot about recent cases being heard by the Supreme Court say that the court is conservative (85%). This compares with 66% of those who have heard a little about these cases, and just 31% who have heard nothing at all.
While there have been increases in the shares of Republicans and Democrats who see a conservative shift on the Supreme Court, partisans have moved in opposite directions when it comes to views of the court’s power.
Today, 58% of adults overall say the Supreme Court has the right amount of power – smaller than the share who said this in August 2020. Larger shares of adults now say the court has too much power (25% then vs. 30% today) or too little power (8% then vs. 11% today).
But Republicans and Democrats have diverged in views about the power of the Supreme Court.
Republicans have become less likely to say the court has too much power – and more likely to say the court has either the right amount or too little power. In 2020, about three-in-ten Republicans said the court had too much power; today, 18% say this.
Democrats have moved in the opposite direction. In August 2020, prior to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, 23% said the court had too much power; today, that share has nearly doubled (40%).
Partisans agree Supreme Court justices should not be influenced by politics, but differ over which justices do this
A large majority of adults – regardless of their partisanship or ideology – say that Supreme Court justices should not bring their own political views into how they decide major cases. But there is more skepticism on whether justices are living up to this ideal – and partisans are more likely to give justices nominated by a president of their own party positive assessments than justices nominated by the opposing party’s president.
Among the large majority of adults (84%) who say that Supreme Court justices should not bring their own political views into how they decide cases, just 16% say the justices are doing an excellent or good job in doing so. A majority (57%) say they do only fair or poor, while 26% are not sure.
Though neither Republicans nor Democrats say that justices are doing a good job at keeping their political views out of cases, Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to say justices are doing a good job remaining politically neutral (24% vs. 12%).
However, Republicans and Democrats are much more likely to say that justices nominated by their own party’s presidents are doing a better job at keeping their political views out of decisions than justices nominated by the opposing party.
For example, among Republicans and Republican leaners who say justices should not bring their own political views into how they decide cases, 45% say that justices nominated by Republican presidents are doing at least a good job in keeping their political views out of decisions. Just 12% of this group say this about justices nominated by Democratic presidents.
There is a similar pattern among Democrats and Democratic leaners who want justices to keep their political views out of their decisions: 44% say justices nominated by Democratic presidents are doing at least a good job at being politically neutral – but just 12% say this about justices nominated by Republican presidents.