Does the Supreme Court have an image problem?

November 26, 2014, 2:47 PM GMT+0

Americans tend to have an unfavorable opinion of the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule once again on the Affordable Care Act, this time on how to understand the word “state” when it comes to health care exchanges – whether the federal exchange, established to cover people in states that did not set up their own exchanges, can offer federal subsidies to help low-income people with insurance costs. Whatever the Court rules, it can make both enemies and friends. It could use a few more friends. The latest Economist/YouGov Poll, finds Americans not all that happy with the Supreme Court to begin with.

After the June Hobby Lobby decision, the Court gained a bit in public support. But that support was fleeting. In this poll, Democrats, Republicans and independents are more likely to say they have an unfavorable view of the Court than a favorable one.

The concern about the Supreme Court is reflected in agreement (or the lack of it) on a number of statements about the Court’s behavior. Only a third believe the Supreme Court can be trusted to make decisions that are right for the country as a whole, and just as many do not. Six in ten say the Court gets “too mixed up” in politics and that it favors some groups more than others. Republicans and Democrats agree about both those things.

However, most Americans do agree that the Court can throw out laws it thinks are unconstitutional. Another relatively good piece of news for the Court is that despite the public’s uncertainty that the Court can be trusted, only 30% would do away with it if it made decisions the Americans public disagrees with. And politics makes relatively little impact on this: Republicans, Democrats and independents are all more likely to disagree than agree with that statement.

Although many have opposed Obamacare – in this week’s poll 40% would repeal the act and 44% call it a failure -- there is a recognition that more Americans are now insured. Enrollments have increased, and 49% of the public believes this (although one in five overall and a third of Republicans say they think the number of people with health insurance has declined).

As for the new ACA case the Court will decide, Americans have a position. Most approve of government subsidies for low-income people to help them buy private health insurance. A majority of Republicans disagree.

And while only a third claim they are following the case, there is a preference about how it should be decided. More disapprove than approve the appeals court ruling that says the government cannot provide subsidies to those who purchase health insurance on the federal exchange. Republicans are more likely to approve, but by a relatively small margin.

Of course, this decision will be based on specific words – when does “state” mean state only. About a third of the public favor literal interpretation in principle (and 39% of Republicans agree), and a quarter want to look at the meaning of statements. But others would consider intent, as well as the changing meaning of words. And a quarter don’t choose any of the options.

See the full poll results

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.

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