5 facts about the Supreme Court

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The FINANCIAL — The Supreme Court holds a unique place in American government. Sitting justices do not have set terms, and they 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 death of Justice Antonin Scalia has set off another of those battles. As President Barack Obama prepares to face off with a Republican-controlled Senate, here are five facts on how Americans view the Supreme Court.

1. Unfavorable opinions of the court reached a 30-year high after the end of last year’s momentous session. In July, 43% of Americans regarded the Supreme Court unfavorably, while 48% had a positive view. Prior to July and dating back to 1985, more Americans viewed the court favorably by double-digit margins. In 2007, for example, two years before Obama took office, Americans viewed the court favorably by 72% to 17%. Partisanship, ideology and religious affiliation are all factors in views of the Supreme Court. In our survey last year, views of the court were strongly linked to how Americans felt about the two major decisions of the justices in 2015 – upholding Obamacare and legalizing same-sex marriage.

2. There is a wide partisan gap in views of the court. Just 33% of Republicans have a favorable opinion of the court, while 61% have an unfavorable view, according to our July poll. In March, prior to the court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage, 50% of Republicans had a favorable view of the court. By contrast, 62% of Democrats had a favorable view in July, a modest increase over March. Just 27% of conservative Republicans have a favorable impression of the court, compared with 70% among liberal Democrats.

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3. Stark partisan divide in how Americans think the Supreme Court should interpret the ConstitutionPartisans have starkly different views over how the justices should interpret the Constitution. Justice Scalia championed an “originalist” view of the Constitution that held it should be interpreted as written – a philosophy shared by 69% of Republicans overall, according to a 2014 survey. Democratic opinion goes the other way: 70% say the court should base its rulings on an understanding of the Constitution’s meaning in current times. The gap is even bigger across ideological lines. About nine-in-ten (92%) of those who are consistently conservative on a 10-question scale of political values say interpretation should be based on original intent. By contrast, 83% of those with consistently liberal political values say the justices’ rulings should be based on the Constitution’s meaning in current times.

4. Major shifts among Americans in views of the Supreme Court’s ideologyIn the wake of last session’s major decisions, views of the court’s ideology have shifted and become more politically polarized. The share of the public saying the court is liberal rose 10 percentage points to 36% after last year’s health care and same-sex-marriage decisions, while the share seeing the court as conservative fell 10 points to just 18%. Views among those at each end of the ideological spectrum changed even more dramatically: Between March and July, the share of conservative Republicans seeing the court as liberal jumped 20 points, to 68%, the highest share since 2007. Among liberal Democrats, there was an 18-point rise among those regarding the court’s ideology as middle-of-the-road, while the share of liberals saying the court was conservative fell by 26 points to 30%.

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5. The justices of the court are a mystery for most Americans. In a survey prior to the major decisions of the last session, just 33% of the public correctly knew the number of women justices (three), 28% knew which justice was considered the court’s “swing” vote (Anthony Kennedy) and 34% could identify the chief justice (John Roberts). Even Scalia, the longest-serving justice and one who frequently made news with his hard-hitting opinions, was relatively unknown: 32% of Americans had never heard of him, according to a Gallup poll conducted last July.


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