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Perceptions of politicization and public preferences toward the Supreme Court

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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

    Writer: | Last updated: October 3, 2011

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the Public Opinion Quarterly article “Political Justice? Perceptions of Politicization and Public Preferences Toward the Supreme Court Appointment Process.”

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the study-related Miller-McCune article "A Politicized Supreme Court Doesn’t Faze the Public?"

    1. Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
    2. Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example, does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.