This week’s Economist/YouGov poll demonstrates the growing partisan divide in how Americans view the Supreme Court. The recent set of Court decisions may even have changed how Americans look at the Court’s main job: deciding cases based on the U.S. Constitution.
On specific recent cases, Americans are more likely to approve than disapprove of decisions on affirmative action, student loan debt, free speech and gay rights, the independent legislature theory, and adoption preferences regarding Native American children. More disapprove than approve of their decisions relating to the Voting Rights Act and to a ruling on abortion issued a year ago.
Views of the Supreme Court
Approval of the Court rose to 39% of Americans strongly or somewhat approving of its handling of its job, up 5 percentage points from 34% in last week's poll. This is almost entirely due to a jump to 71% in approval among Republicans, up 16 points from 55% in last week's poll. Republican disapproval dropped 7 points. Democratic approval dropped 4 points, while disapproval rose 7 points.
About half (52%) of Americans strongly or somewhat agree that the Supreme Court should be able to throw out any law it thinks is unconstitutional, including 34% of Democrats and 73% of Republicans.
Trust in the Supreme Court has slipped. It remains more trusted than Congress, but the public’s level of trust in the court is now much like trust in the executive branch, which typically differs by a person's political party and the president's. In May, the last time this question was asked, 50% said they had either “not very much" confidence in the judicial branch of the federal government or “none at all." Now, 55% have little or no confidence. That figure includes two out of three Democrats, up 16 points since May. About two in three Republicans, now as then, have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence.
Perceptions of the court’s ideology matter. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (73%) see the Supreme Court as more conservative than the American public in general, up from 61% in March, while about half of Republicans (48%) think the Court’s opinions are in line with those of the public, up from 32% in March. Now as then, by a margin of 60% to 40%, Americans believe the Supreme Court justices act more on their personal or political views than on legal analysis.
As for Americans' opinion about the individual justices, Chief Justice John Roberts' standing has changed among both Democrats and Republicans. The April 29 - May 2 poll found that Roberts — appointed by George W. Bush, the former Republican president — received somewhat or very favorable ratings from just about as many Democrats as rating him somewhat or very unfavorably (37% vs. 35%). Now Democrats who view the chief justice favorably are outnumbered by the share who view him unfavorably (16% vs. 48%). Meanwhile, in the April 29 - May 2 poll and last week's poll, fewer than half of Republicans (44% and 40%) had a favorable opinion of Roberts. Now 52% view him favorably.
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, each appointed by Republican presidents, have both recently been accused of not disclosing large gifts they received from people who might have had interests in cases before the court. They are both very popular with Republicans. Two-thirds of Republicans have a favorable opinion of Thomas, and just 12% have an unfavorable one. Brett Kavanaugh is the only other justice appointed by a Republican president who fares as well with Republicans: 67% are favorable about him; 9% are unfavorable. Alito is viewed favorably by 53% of Republicans. Among justices appointed by Democratic presidents, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson both are viewed favorably by about two-thirds of Democrats.
Views of Supreme Court rulings
Most Americans reject allowing race to be considered as a factor in college admissions and approve of the Supreme Court’s recent decision against the use of affirmative action in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. While 57% approve of the ruling, 27% disapprove. Democrats are more likely to disapprove: 35% approve and 49% disapprove. Black Americans are more likely to approve than disapprove, by a narrow margin: 44% approve and 35% do not. While white Democrats disapprove of the ruling by a margin of 53% to 33%, Black Democrats are evenly divided (41% disapprove, 41% approve).
Majorities of Americans oppose college admissions taking into account most personal characteristics asked about in the poll. Large majorities say colleges should be allowed to consider an applicant's grade point averages and standardized test scores; majorities oppose allowing the consideration of political beliefs, ideology, gender, race or ethnicity, class background, and whether parents or siblings attended the school.
Student loan debt
American opinion of the Biden Administration’s attempt to reduce student loan debt is closely linked to a person's political party identification and student loan status: Democrats and people who currently have student loan debt are far more likely to approve.
Student loan debt is at least a somewhat serious problem, according to majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. But by a narrow margin of 46% to 40%, Americans approve of the Court’s decision in Biden v. Nebraska that the president does not have the authority to forgive that debt — an authority Biden claimed based on the 2003 HEROES Act.
Democrats (18%) are twice as likely as Republicans (9%) to still have student loan debt. Black Americans (25%) are more than twice as likely as white Americans (10%). While 22% of adults under the age of 45 have student loan debt, that percentage drops to just 12% of Americans between the ages of 45 and 64, and 3% among older Americans.
Free speech and LGBT rights
In principle, Americans are more likely to oppose than support allowing business owners to refuse service to certain groups of people based on the owners' religious beliefs.
But Americans are divided on the Supreme Court’s decision in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, which gave First Amendment protection to a creative business owner’s refusal — on religious grounds — to provide a wedding website for same-sex couples. By a narrow margin of 43% to 38%, Americans are more likely to approve than disapprove of the ruling.
Other recent cases
Our latest poll also asked about several other Supreme Court decisions made this year. Americans are far more likely to approve (47%) than disapprove (13%) of the Court's decision in Moore v. Harper, rejecting the independent state legislature theory that would have given state legislatures sole authority to establish federal election laws without review by state courts.
In Allen v. Milligan, the court ruled that Alabama's congressional districts discriminated against Black voters, upholding the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. Americans are somewhat more likely to disapprove of this decision (38%) than to approve of it (27%).
By 58% to 9%, Americans approve of the Court's ruling in Haaland v. Brackeen, which held that tribal governments are allowed to give Native American families or institutions priority in receiving Native American children for foster care and adoption placement.
Several of the most prominent recent Supreme Court decisions have yet to break through among Americans. Few say they have heard a lot about some of the most recently decided cases: 31% have heard “a lot” about the decision that the executive branch could not offer a student loan reduction for people earning less than $125,000 per year, and only 29% have heard a lot about the Court deciding that some business owners can reject business from LGBTQ adults on religious bases. Even fewer (13%) have heard a lot about the independent state legislature theory, which the Supreme Court rejected, and the same small share have heard a lot about the requirement that Alabama must consider race in the allocation of congressional districts. Only 9% have heard a lot about the case that gave preference to Indian tribes when it comes to adoption.
The share of Americans who have heard a lot about each of these cases is much smaller than the share who have heard a lot about last year’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe v. Wade. Nearly half of Americans (47%) have heard a lot about Dobbs — and many don’t like that decision, which held that there is no constitutional right to an abortion: 51% disapprove, while 36% approve. Democrats disapprove by 79% to 12%; 19% of Republicans disapprove, while 69% approve.
Methodology: Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.
Image: Unsplash (Bill Mason)