MILWAUKEE — A Marquette Law School Poll of voters nationwide provides wide-ranging measures of public understanding and opinion of the United States Supreme Court. Among the findings: A majority of respondents have more confidence in the Court than in other parts of the federal government; few see the Court as taking extremely liberal or extremely conservative positions, although views of the Court differ by partisanship; and a majority of the public opposes increasing the number of justices even as a majority supports limiting how long justices may serve.
Other findings include that while there is broad support for the Court as a whole, political conservatives are more favorable to the current make-up and decisions of the Court than liberals are. And majorities support some decisions or potential decisions involving abortion, gay rights, and banning semi-automatic rifles that are generally labeled liberal; at the same time, majorities favor decisions of the Court, including a right to possess firearms and allowance of public funds to support students in religious schools, that are generally considered conservative.
Awareness of the individual justices remains fairly low. Only 34 percent of those polled offered an opinion on at least five of the nine justices, and 28 percent had no opinion on any of them.
A majority of those polled said they want decisions to be nonpartisan and to be generally “fair.” A majority (57 percent) also said that they support the Court’s using “evolving” interpretations of the U.S. Constitution rather than interpretations based solely on the intent of the Constitution’s framers.
The survey was conducted Sept. 3-13, 2019; 1,423 adults were interviewed nationwide, with a margin of error of +/-3.6 percentage points.
Confidence in the Court and other institutions
Confidence in the Supreme Court is higher than that for other branches of the federal government and some other institutions. Confidence in the respondent’s state supreme court ranks second highest. Confidence in the presidency shows some polarization, with more very-low and very-high ratings, while Congress receives the lowest confidence rating.
Here is a list of institutions in American society. How much confidence do you have in each one?
|None||Very little||Some||Quite a lot||A great deal|
|U.S. Supreme Court||4||16||43||29||8|
|State Supreme Court||5||17||46||27||5|
|Criminal Justice System||8||26||46||17||3|
When respondents are asked to rank the three branches of the federal government, the Supreme Court inspires the most confidence by a substantial margin. This finding, consistent with much other public opinion research, points to the strength of the Court in the public mind in relation to the other branches of the federal government.
Of the three branches of U.S. government, which one do you trust the most?
|The U.S. Supreme Court (the judicial branch)||57|
|The U.S. Congress (the legislative branch)||22|
|The Presidency (the executive branch)||21|
are more aware of the U.S. Supreme Court generally express greater confidence
in it. Familiarity breeds support in the case of the Court. General attention
to politics is associated with greater confidence. (In this table, “none” and
“very little” confidence are combined as “low confidence,” and “quite a lot”
and “a great deal” are combined as “high” confidence.)
Confidence in the Court by attention to politics
|Low Confidence||Medium Confidence||High Confidence|
Partisanship and ideology are related to confidence in the Court. Independents have lower confidence than partisans, while Republicans have higher confidence than Democrats.
Confidence in the Court by party identification
High confidence in the Court is also associated with conservative ideology, whereas it is not as high among those with very liberal beliefs.
Confidence in the Court by liberal-conservative ideology
Perceptions of the Supreme Court as moderate to conservative
The poll finds that, despite partisan battles over the U.S.
Supreme Court in recent decades, the largest group, 50 percent, considers the
Court to occupy a “moderate” position on the liberal-conservative continuum.
Considerably more, 39 percent, consider the Court conservative than the 12
percent who consider it liberal. Few respondents see the Court as extreme in
either ideological direction, with only 9 percent combined saying that it is
either very conservative or very liberal.
In general, would you describe the U.S. Supreme Court as very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal or very liberal?
Those who pay the most attention to politics are more likely to see the Court as conservative or very conservative, with 41 percent saying that it is moderate. For the less attentive, majorities place the Court at the middle of the ideological scale.
Perceived ideology of the Court by attention to politics
|Very conservative||Conservative||Moderate||Liberal||Very liberal|
A majority of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic see the Court as conservative or very conservative. Independents and Republicans are much more likely to call the Court moderate, with about 60 percent of each of those two groups placing the Court at the middle on ideology. None of the partisan categories sees an especially extreme court, showing that the Court is seen as being to the middle, with the public view tilting a bit more one way or the other depending on attention to politics or partisanship.
Perceived ideology of the Court by party identification
|Very conservative||Conservative||Moderate||Liberal||Very liberal|
most people think the next appointment to the Court is important, one in five
think that it is not too important or not at all important (combined as “not
important” in tables below).
Importance of next court appointment
Those who pay the most attention to politics in general are much more likely to say the next appointment to the Court is very important.
Importance of next court appointment by attention to politics
|Not important||Somewhat||Very important|
There has been public discussion of changing the institutional structure of the Court. A majority oppose increasing the number of justices, although more than one in three somewhat favor an increase and 8 percent strongly favor a change.
[Increase the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court] How much do you favor or oppose the following proposals affecting the Supreme Court?
majority support for setting a fixed term for justices to serve on the Court,
replacing the current life tenure.
[Have judges serve a fixed term on the court rather than serving life terms] How much do you favor or oppose the following proposals affecting the Supreme Court?
Restricting the power of judicial review is supported by 38 percent while 62 percent oppose this.
[Limit the ability of the Supreme Court to review and set aside acts of Congress as unconstitutional] How much do you favor or oppose the following proposals affecting the Supreme Court?
Partisanship plays a role in willingness to make changes to the number of justices, with Democrats more supportive than Republicans, although even among strong Democrats support for expansion is evenly divided.
Favor expanding the Court by party identification
|Strongly favor||Favor||Oppose||Strongly oppose|
Support for fixed terms is independent of partisanship, with similar support across all party groups.
Favor fixed terms for justices by party identification
|Strongly favor||Favor||Oppose||Strongly oppose|
There are modest differences between partisans in support for limiting judicial review, with Republicans a little more supportive than Democrats.
Favor limiting judicial review by party identification
|Strongly favor||Favor||Oppose||Strongly oppose|
The confirmation of nominees to both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts has grown far more contentious over the past several decades. During this period, opposition based on expected policy differences and based on partisanship, which once was rare, has become common.
While partisan and policy differences have come to dominate elite debate over nominations, substantial majorities of the public say that these are not sufficient reasons to reject an otherwise qualified nominee.
Fewer than 40 percent say that a senator would be justified in rejecting an otherwise qualified nominee, with no ethical problems, based on how the senator believes the nominee would decide cases. More than 60 percent say that this is not a justification for rejecting a nominee.
If a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court is qualified and has no ethical problems, would U.S. senators be justified or not justified in voting against that nominee simply because of how they believe the justice would decide cases on issues such as abortion, gun control, or affirmative action?
Partisan objections to a nominee are seen as even less justified, with more than 80 percent saying that rejecting a qualified nominee simply because of party is not justified, while 19 percent say that this is reason enough for a vote against confirmation.
If a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court is qualified and has no ethical problems, would U.S. senators be justified or not justified in voting against that nominee simply because the senator is from a different political party?
Rejection due to partisan (i.e., party) differences is equally disapproved across party identification, ideology, and strength of party identification or ideology. While party and policy are inextricably linked, the public does not support partisan differences as the sole basis of confirming or rejecting court nominees.
Rejecting nominees based on how they are believed likely to rule on cases is somewhat more dependent on the respondent’s party and ideology. While Democratic and Republican differences are not statistically significant, independents are significantly more likely to say that rejection based on policy differences is not justified.
Reject nominee over policy by party identification
Those who say that the next appointment is important are more likely to say that rejecting a nominee on policy grounds is justified. This does not carry over to rejection on partisan grounds, however, where there are no significant differences among respondents based on the importance that they attach to the next appointment. Even among those who rate the next appointment as very important, less than half say that rejection of a nominee is justified on policy grounds, and only one in five say so on party grounds.
Rejecting nominee over policy by importance of next appointment
Rejecting nominee over party by importance of next appointment
Those who are most attentive to politics are also more willing to justify rejection of a nominee on policy grounds, but not willing to do so over partisan differences. As with the importance assigned to the next nominee, more than half of those who pay the most attention to politics say that rejecting a qualified nominee on policy grounds is not justified, and more than 80 percent say this with respect to partisan grounds.
Rejecting nominee over policy by attention to politics
Rejecting nominee over party by attention to politics
The decision by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, in 2016 not to hold hearings on any nominee by President Barack Obama to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia was controversial. For the mass public this action was, in retrospect at least, not the right thing to do.
In February 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate would not consider or hold hearings on any nominee President Obama might name during an election year. In March, Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. The Senate did not hold a hearing and the nomination expired in January 2017. Was not holding a hearing on the nomination the right thing or the wrong thing to do?
|Right thing to do||27|
|Wrong thing to do||73|
The possibility of a nomination during the 2020 election year faces the question of consistency with the 2016 precedent. Most respondents believe that a nomination in 2020 should result in hearings. However, nearly one in three now believe that hearings should not be held in an election year.
If there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court during the 2020 presidential election year and President Trump nominates someone, what should the Senate do?
|Not hold hearings||31|
Views of the lack of hearings in 2016 are strongly related to partisanship, with Republicans more likely than others to say that the refusal to consider a nomination was the right thing to do. But, even among Republicans, a majority say that it was the wrong decision, as do nearly nine in 10 Democrats.
No confirmation hearings in 2016, by party identification
|Right thing to do||Wrong thing to do|
As for holding hearings if a 2020 vacancy were to occur, Republicans strongly support hearings in the presidential election year, while nearly four in 10 Democrats say that no hearings should occur.
Hold confirmation hearings in 2020 by party identification
|Hold hearings||Not hold hearings|
We asked about a total of 14 cases. We described seven past decisions and seven possible future decisions. In the latter group, we based some descriptions on actual cases, while others were hypothetical, and we did not indicate whether such a description was based on an actual as opposed to hypothetical case. Our choice of topics reflects recent and current cases that have received widespread news coverage. In all cases, we adopted common journalistic language to describe the outcome or consequences of decisions, rather than attempting a fuller syllabus for each case. With the exception of Roe v. Wade, we did not identify cases by name.
Past decisions describe rulings on same-sex marriage, use of race in college admissions, a ban on travel to the United States from Muslim-majority countries, coverage of birth control in employee health plans, campaign spending by corporations and unions, partisan gerrymandering, and an individual’s right to possess a firearm.
Public views of these actual or possible decisions vary. In some cases, a majority favor past decisions, while in others the majority oppose the decisions. With potential future decisions, there are some possible outcomes that receive more popular support than others.
The full question wording and the short description used in the table below follow.
- Past decisions:
“How much do you favor or oppose the following recent Supreme Court decisions?”
- Corporate political spending: “Decided that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money to directly support or oppose political candidates.”
- Race in admissions: “Decided colleges can use race as one factor in deciding which applicants to admit.”
- Partisan gerrymanders: “Decided that federal courts lack the constitutional authority to rule on cases involving legislative and congressional district boundaries designed to favor one political party (known as gerrymanders).”
- Exclude birth control coverage: “Decided that privately held, for-profit companies may choose not to pay for coverage of prescription birth control in their workers’ health plans if the company’s owner has religious objections.”
- Upheld travel ban: “Upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban against citizens of five Muslim-majority countries.”
- Same-sex marriage: “Established a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.”
- Right to firearms: “The Second Amendment reads: ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ In 2008, the court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”
Public views of past decisions.
|Strongly Oppose||Oppose||Favor||Strongly Favor||Don’t know|
|Corporate political spending||53||22||11||3||10|
|Race in admissions||57||21||11||4||7|
|Exclude birth control coverage||44||19||13||14||10|
|Upheld travel ban||33||16||19||23||10|
|Right to firearm||11||13||27||40||8|
Possible future decisions
Some of the future decisions are taken from cases currently on the Court’s docket while others are hypothetical. These questions asked how much the respondent would favor or oppose the outcome as described. Possible decisions included overturning Roe v. Wade; striking down the Affordable Care Act; allowing business owners to deny services to gay people for religious reasons; allowing the Trump administration to end the DACA program; extending protections against employment discrimination to cover gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals; allowing public funds that support students attending private schools to also include those attending religious schools; and deciding that a ban on semi-automatic rifles violates the Second Amendment. The full question wording and the short description used in the table below follows.
- Possible future
decisions: “How much do you favor or oppose the following possible Supreme
- Overturn Roe v. Wade: “Overturn Roe versus Wade, thus striking down the 1973 decision that made abortion legal in all 50 states.”
- End DACA: “Decide the administration can end the DACA program that allows young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children to register and avoid immediate deportation.”
- Deny service to gay people: “Decide that a business owner’s religious beliefs or free speech rights can justify refusing some services to gay people.”
- Public funds for religious school students: “Decide that a program that financially supports students attending private schools may also include religious schools without violating the constitution.”
- Strike down ACA: “Strike down the 2010 health care reform law, also called Obamacare, by declaring it unconstitutional.”
- Second Amendment prohibits semi-automatic rifle ban: “Decide that a ban on semi-automatic rifles violates the Second Amendment and thus is unconstitutional.”
- Employment discrimination includes LGBTQ people: “Decide that laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex also apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation of gay, lesbian, or transgender individuals.”
Public views of possible future decisions.
|Strongly Oppose||Oppose||Favor||Strongly Favor||Don’t know|
|Overturn Roe v. Wade||47||14||13||16||9|
|Deny service to gay people||40||17||15||19||9|
|Public funds for religious school students||17||16||31||22||14|
|Strike down ACA||35||17||15||23||10|
|Second Amendment prohibits semi-automatic rifle ban||36||17||14||25||8|
|Employment discrimination includes LGBTQ||18||12||22||39||9|
We asked respondents if they had never heard of each justice, had heard of each justice but didn’t have an opinion, and if they were aware whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion.
There is considerable variation in awareness of the justices, from 84 percent unable to rate Justice Stephen Breyer to 42 percent for Justice Brett Kavanaugh and 41 percent for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The awareness and favorability ratings of the justices are shown in the table below.
Some justices of the Supreme Court are better known than others. For each of these names, have you never heard of them, heard of them but don’t know enough to have an opinion of them, have a favorable opinion, or have an unfavorable opinion?
|Unfavorable||Unable to rate||Favorable|
Just over one in four respondents lacked enough information to rate even a single justice, with an additional 11 percent able to rate only one justice. Just over a third of respondents said that they were able to rate a majority of the justices.
Number of justices able to rate, full scale
We measure knowledge of the Court and the Constitution through four items, assessing understanding of judicial review, the authority of the Court over the president, the location of the Bill of Rights within the Constitution, and which party’s presidents have appointed a majority of the current Court.
Does the Supreme Court have the power to review laws passed by Congress and to declare them invalid if they conflict with the Constitution?
|Yes, the Supreme Court has this power||86|
|No, the Supreme Court does not have this power||14|
If the Supreme Court rules against the president in a case, does the president have the power to ignore that ruling, or is the president required to do as the ruling says?
|The president has the power to ignore the ruling||23|
|The president is required to do as the ruling says||77|
Which part of the Constitution is called the ‘Bill of Rights’?
|I don’t know||33|
What is your guess as to whether a majority of the current U.S. Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic or Republican presidents?
|Definitely Democratic Majority||4|
|Probably Democratic Majority||23|
|Probably Republican Majority||54|
|Definitely Republican Majority||19|
(The correct answer is Republican. Five were appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democratic presidents.)
We can sum up the correct answers to create a knowledge score for each respondent, ranging from zero to four correct answers.
Knowledge of factual information, full scale
How the public thinks justices decide and how it thinks they should decide
some see the Court as driven by politics, a near two-to-one majority say that
justices base their decisions primarily on the law.
In general, what most often motivates Supreme Court justices’ decisions?
|Mainly the law||64|
A majority say that justices should base their decisions on an evolving meaning of the Constitution rather than on what the Constitution was originally understood to mean.
How should Supreme Court justices base their decisions? On their interpretations of what the U.S. Constitution was understood to mean when it was originally written or on the Constitution as a document whose meaning may have evolved over time?
A majority of the public believes that a decision should produce a “fair” outcome rather than strictly follow the law if that would produce an unfair outcome.
Which is more important, a decision that leads to a fair outcome or one that follows the law, even if seemingly unfair?
|That leads to a fair outcome||56|
|That follows the law, even if seemingly unfair||44|
In thinking about the qualities important in a justice, the public puts greater emphasis on good judgment and empathy, followed by respect for existing decisions. Following a judicial philosophy was deemed least important. (In this table “not at all important” and “not very important” are combined as “unimportant.”)
- “How important
is it for a good Supreme Court justice to have each of these characteristics?”
- “Be able to empathize with ordinary people; that is, to be able to understand how the law hurts or helps the people”
- “Exercise good judgment and wisdom in the application of the law rather than only strict technical compliance with the law as it is written”
- “Respect for existing Supreme Court decisions”
- “Interpret the law according to the justice’s judicial philosophy, whether liberal or conservative”
How important is it for a good Supreme Court justice to have each of these characteristics?
The Court and opinions of the president
Appointments to the Supreme Court emerged as an important element in the 2016 presidential campaign when then-candidate Donald Trump released a list of names from which he pledged to select nominees to the Court. With two subsequent appointments to the Court, this issue has remained salient as a congressional issue as well.
Asked how much they approve of President Trump’s handling of Supreme Court appointments, 43 percent approve, and 57 percent disapprove.
[Appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court] How much do you approve or disapprove of the way Trump is handling the following issues?
For comparison, 40 percent approve of President Trump’s handling of his job overall, while 60 percent disapprove, a slightly worse overall approval rating than for his handling of court nominations.
Overall, how much do you approve or disapprove of the way Trump is handling his job as president?
Asked about their confidence in a future Trump nominee, 32 percent say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence, 13 percent have some, while 56 percent say they have little or no confidence that the next nominee will be the right kind of person for the Court.
If there is another opening on the Supreme Court, how much confidence do you have that President Donald Trump will select the right kind of person to sit on the Supreme Court?
|A great deal of confidence||19|
|Quite a lot of confidence||13|
|Very little confidence||19|
|None at all||37|
Views of presidential performance overall and of judicial matters are, unsurprisingly, closely tied to partisanship, with nearly identical correlations of 0.74 and 0.73, respectively.
Approval of Trump’s handling of nominations to the Supreme Court by party identification
|Strongly approve||Somewhat approve||Somewhat disapprove||Strongly disapprove|
A multivariate model of overall Trump job approval, including the effects of partisanship and ideology, finds that approval of court nominations has a strong and statistically significant relationship with overall job approval. The favorability rating of Justice Kavanaugh is also a statistically significant predictor of job approval, while the rating of Trump’s other appointee, Justice Gorsuch, is not statistically significant.
Opinion on handling of nominations also has statistically significant effects on vote choice for president in 2020. A multivariate model that predicts vote if the final election is between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and if the final election is between Trump and Sen. Elizabeth Warren results in similar conclusions. The model, which includes partisanship, ideology, and overall job approval, finds that there is an additional statistically significant effect of approval of court nominations, and of favorability to Kavanaugh, with no statistically significant effect for favorability to Gorsuch.
While other factors such as party, ideology, and overall performance are powerful predictors of vote choice, the statistical model supports the idea that court appointments are an additional factor in evaluations of presidential performance and in vote choice.
detailed analysis of the survey findings is available at https://law.marquette.edu/poll/category/results-and-data/
About the Marquette Law School Poll
The survey was conducted Sept. 3-13, 2019, interviewing 1,423 adults nationwide, with a margin of error of +/-3.6 percentage points. Interviews were conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) using its AmeriSpeak Panel, a national probability sample, with interviews conducted online. The detailed methodology statement, complete survey instrument, topline results, and crosstabs are available at https://law.marquette.edu/poll/category/results-and-data/