Expert Commentary

Perceptions of politicization and public preferences toward the Supreme Court

2011 study from George Washington University and Duke University in Public Opinion Quarterly on public opinion, partisanship and Supreme Court nominees.

Judge's gavel (iStock)

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings of high consequence — such as its 2010 Citizens United decision and the 2012 ruling on the  Affordable Care Act — that remain matters of partisan debate. While the conventional view of judges is that they should operate above public opinion and ideology, some research suggests that the Court’s rulings may be shaped by political considerations. Of course, the Supreme Court nominating process itself has also become a more political process in recent decades. How the public will continue to regard a judiciary with more perceived politicization, though, remains an outstanding question.

A 2011 study by researchers at George Washington University and Duke University published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “Political Justice? Perceptions of Politicization and Public Preferences Toward the Supreme Court Appointment Process,” analyzes more than 1,500 citizen responses to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s 2005 Supreme Court Survey to gauge public attitudes toward the Supreme Court and the appointment process.

Key study findings include:

  • 70% of survey respondents consider the Supreme Court to be a political body “too mixed up in politics,” favoring some groups over others.
  • “The more individuals perceive the Court in politicized terms the greater their degree of support for an appointment process that emphasizes political and ideological factors.” Some 55% of respondents preferred a politicized appointment process for Supreme Court justices, with 54.4% in favor of requiring a nominee to state their views on legal issues.
  • 71% are supportive of a nominee who shares their personal positions on abortion.
  • 45.8% believe that the President should consider a nominee’s views on controversial issues; only 49.9% believe that the President should only consider the nominee’s qualifications and background.
  • 47.3% believe that the Senate should consider how a nominee may vote on controversial issues, while 48.3% believe that the Senate should only consider qualifications and background.

The authors conclude that “the more citizens see the [Supreme] Court in political terms, the more they prefer that the processes by which justices are appointed be political and ideological in nature… [and] if large segments of the public prefer a political appointment process, then their representatives in government will be less bound to norms of objectivity in the appointment process.”

Tags: Congress, campaign issue

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