Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

5 facts about the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012-2013

Note: For more recent facts on the high court, see this post from 2020.

Phew, what a week for the U.S. Supreme Court. With major rulings on affirmative action, voting rights and same-sex marriage released this week, we rounded up  five facts about the court and its year of contentious cases and historic votes:

Favorable opinions of the Supreme Court have fallen in recent years. In March, before the major end-of-term rulings, 52% of American adults viewed the court favorably while 31% expressed an unfavorable opinion. Four years ago, shortly after President Barack Obama took office, 64% viewed the court favorably and in 2007, 72% had a favorable impression. Still, even with its diminished ratings, the Supreme Court is much more popular than another much-maligned branch of government. In January, just 23% viewed Congress favorably, less than half the share that had a favorable opinion of the court.

The judicial branch of government may be the one Americans know the least about. In an August 2012 Pew Research Center knowledge survey, just 39% of American voters could correctly identify John Roberts as the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Comparatively, 75% of voters knew that Obama was formerly a senator from Illinois and 40% knew that Republicans had a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the 2012-2013 term, more decisions were reached by a 9-0 or 5-4 vote than in the past three terms, according to an analysis of merits cases by vote split conducted by SCOTUSblog. A total of 38 cases (49%) resulted in a 9-0 vote while 23 cases (29%) resulted in a 5-4 vote.

Justice Clarence Thomas maintained his reputation as the court’s quietest justice, asking almost no questions during oral arguments this year. Notably, he broke his seven-year silence in January. Comparatively, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the court’s most vocal member, asking an average of 21.6 questions per argument. Justice Antonin Scalia followed closely behind with an average of 20.5 questions per argument.

With a total of 169 opinions released in 78 merits cases, the court issued the second-lowest number of opinions since the 1995-1996 term, when SCOTUSblog began collecting statistics. The court issued eight more opinions than it did during the 2011-2012 term. And the court’s least vocal justice was also its most verbose when it came to opinions. Justice Thomas authored 25 total opinions, more than any of his colleagues. Justice Elena Kagan authored the fewest with 13 total opinions.