Please note: Complete Poll results and methodology information can be found online at law.marquette.edu/poll
MILWAUKEE — A Marquette Law School Poll of adults nationwide, completed shortly before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, finds that 62 percent of respondents say Supreme Court justices’ decisions are motivated mainly by the law, while 37 percent say they are motivated mainly by politics.
While views of the Court often correspond to political identifications, the view of judicial motivations is quite uniform across partisanship and ideology. Table 1 shows perceived motivation of decisions, by party identification. The range is narrow: Across the parties, between 35 and 39 percent say politics is a primary motivation and 60 to 65 percent say the law is mainly the motivation.
Table 1: Perceived basis of decisions, by party identification
|Party ID||Mainly politics||Mainly the law|
Table 2 shows the perceived motivation, by political ideology, and again all groups share very similar views, with 35-40 percent of each group pointing to politics, while 60-65 percent say the law is the main motivation for decisions.
Table 2: Perceived basis of decisions, by self-described ideology
|Ideology||Mainly politics||Mainly the law|
Those who disapprove of the job the Court is doing are much more likely to say decisions are politically motivated, with 56 percent saying decisions are primarily political and 44 percent saying they are primarily based in the law. By contrast, among those who approve of the way the Court is handling its job, 28 percent say decisions are primarily political and 72 percent say they are motivated by the law.
Similarly, 79 percent of those with a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the Court cite the law as the motivation for decisions, while 21 percent say decisions are mostly political. For those who say they have “some” confidence in the Court, 55 percent cite the law and 44 percent point to politics as the motivation for decisions. And among those with very little or no confidence in the Court, 40 percent cite the law while 60 percent say politics is the motivation for decisions.
Asked how justices should interpret the law, 31 percent say they should read the text as written, 23 percent say they should use the commonly understood meaning at the time the law was written, and 45 percent say justices should interpret the law as it applies to current circumstances.
On this question, preferences vary by both party and ideology. Table 3 shows how views vary by partisanship. Republicans are more likely to prefer to base decisions on the text of the law, while Democrats are more likely to say the application to current circumstances should be more important. More independents prefer interpretation by application to current circumstances rather than by the text. Across all party groups, about one in five people say the original meaning of the law should be the basis of decisions.
Table 3: Preferred basis of decisions, by party identification
|Party ID||Read the text of the law as written||Use the commonly understood meaning at the time the law was written||Interpret the law as it applies to current circumstances|
Conservatives give greater weight to the text than to current circumstances, while liberals prefer decisions based on current applications of the law, as shown in Table 4.
Table 4: Preferred basis of decisions, by ideology
|Ideology||Read the text of the law as written||Use the commonly understood meaning at the time the law was written||Interpret the law as it applies to current circumstances|
Debates among those involved in the law and politics over constitutional interpretation based on “original intent” versus “evolving meaning” have also aligned with party and ideology in the public at large. When asked how the justices should decide constitutional questions, two-thirds of Republicans say they should follow the original meaning of the Constitution, while two-thirds of Democrats say the Constitution should be read as a document whose meaning may have evolved over time. Table 5 shows responses by partisanship.
Table 5: Constitutional interpretation, by party identification
|Party ID||What the U.S. Constitution was understood to mean when it was originally written||The Constitution as a document whose meaning may have evolved over time|
As with party identification, there is a strong alignment of constitutional interpretation preference with ideology, as shown in Table 6.
Table 6: Constitutional interpretation, by ideology
|Ideology||What the U.S. Constitution was understood to mean when it was originally written||The Constitution as a document whose meaning may have evolved over time|
It is striking that respondents tend to agree across party and ideological lines on how justices make decisions—that the justices do so mainly on the basis of the law rather than politics—but differ sharply on what judicial philosophy justices should use to decide.
Agreement with recent Court decisions varies across subject matter, with some cases less visible to the public than others. In the survey instrument, cases were not referred to by name. See the survey instrument for the question wording, which focuses on an important element of each case but does not attempt to convey the full complexity of cases or of the issues they present.
One of the major cases of the last term, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, decided that the federal law barring employment discrimination on the basis of sex also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and against transgender individuals. Sixty-two percent favor this decision, while 26 percent oppose it and 11 percent say they don’t have an opinion.
The Court held in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that a state program financially supporting students who attend private schools may include religious schools without violating the federal Constitution. This decision is favored by 51 percent and opposed by 32 percent of respondents, while 15 percent do not have an opinion.
The Court rejected the attempt of President Donald Trump’s administration to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. Fifty percent favor this ruling, 35 percent oppose it and 14 percent say they don’t know.
In Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, the Court approved the Trump administration’s plan to permit private employers with religious or moral objections to choose not to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their employee health insurance plans. For this decision, 34 percent favor it, 51 percent oppose it and 13 percent have no opinion.
In the term’s major case concerning abortion regulation, June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, the Court struck down a particular Louisiana law regulating abortion providers in the state. Forty-five percent favor this decision, with 35 percent opposing it and 18 percent not expressing an opinion.
In McGirt v Oklahoma, the Court ruled that land granted in the 1830s to the Creek Indian Nation retains that status, with the result that the state of Oklahoma could not itself prosecute tribal members for major crimes in the eastern portion of the state, including places such as Tulsa, because Congress has not acted to change those treaties. Fully 27 percent say they don’t have an opinion about this decision, while 46 percent favor the ruling and 25 percent oppose it.
While the Court did not rule on an affirmative action case during the 2019 term, we asked whether the respondent favors or opposes past decisions that permit the use of race as one factor in making college admissions decisions. Seventeen percent favor these decisions, while 73 percent oppose them and 10 percent say they don’t know.
Possible future decisions
Drawing on a range of cases or controversies that either are already accepted for the coming Court term or present issues likely to come to the Court in the future, we asked opinions about possible decisions.
Roe v. Wade has remained at the center of political debate over abortion for more than four decades. In this survey, 32 percent would favor overturning Roe, while 55 percent oppose overturning it and 12 percent say they don’t have an opinion.
Two cases accepted for argument this fall, Texas v. California and California v. Texas, challenge the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Among respondents, 36 percent favor striking down the ACA, while 52 percent oppose striking down the law and 11 percent say they don’t know.
Cases currently in the lower courts, but not yet before the Supreme Court, concern whether limits on the sale of high-capacity gun magazines violate the Second Amendment. Thirty-seven percent would favor a ruling striking down such restrictions, while 50 percent would favor allowing legislative limits on such gun magazines to stay in effect and 11 percent say they don’t know.
Recent rulings have expanded interpretations of exemptions from employment discrimination laws for religious organizations and schools in the case of certain types of employees. Among respondents in this poll, 42 percent favor a possible ruling that, under the First Amendment, religiously affiliated schools are generally exempt from these laws with respect to employees whose jobs involve conveying religious beliefs, while 43 percent oppose this and 14 percent say that don’t know.
A case set for argument this fall, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, poses, among other issues, a question whether a religious social service organization that refuses to certify same-sex couples as foster parents may be excluded from a public foster placement program. Forty percent would favor a ruling that such an organization may be legally excluded, 44 percent would oppose such a ruling and 15 percent do not have an opinion.
There are developing issues as to how explicit Congress must be in giving regulatory agencies authority to develop and impose regulations. Fifty-three percent would favor a ruling that federal agencies may not write regulations unless their substance is explicitly set forth in legislation, 19 percent would oppose this limitation on regulatory agencies and 27 percent don’t have an opinion.
Forty-eight percent would favor a ruling that laws making it harder, as a practical matter, for supporters of one party, but not the other, to vote are unconstitutional. Meanwhile, 29 percent would oppose such a decision and 21 percent say they don’t know.
About the Marquette Law School Poll
The survey was conducted Sept. 8-15, 2020, interviewing 1,523 adults nationwide, with a margin of error of +/-3.3 percentage points. There are 1357 likely voters, 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, survey instrument, topline results, and crosstabs for this release are available at https://law.marquette.edu/poll/category/results-and-data/.