Despite the many decisions this term that highlighted how closely divided the Supreme Court of the United States can be, the judicial branch has managed to retain a positive image with the general public, including Republicans and Democrats. But, at the end of its term, the Supreme Court received a greater boost from the GOP. In the latest Economist/YouGov Poll, Republican approval of how the Supreme Court is handling its job jumped 13 points from one week before.
The Supreme Court maintains a higher approval rating than either President Donald Trump (whose rating is now 39%, while 54% disapprove) and Congress, which is usually the least popular branch. This week, just 13 percent approve of Congress and about half (49%) disapprove.
The recent term highlighted the role of Chief Justice John Roberts, who provided the fifth – and deciding -- vote in a number of high-profile cases (occasionally joined by other GOP-nominated Justices). Roberts was in the majority in 97% of the decisions this term, according to one analysis. His decisions have sometimes alienated the Republican base, as in his vote five years ago to uphold the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a decision which he wrote. After that decision, Roberts was popular with Democrats, but not with Republicans.
Justice Roberts now receives positive assessments from Republicans, while Democrats are closely divided. Those in both parties improved their judgments of Roberts in the last two weeks. Justice Stephen Breyer, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, is the only other Justice with favorable assessments from both Democrats and Republicans. Despite Breyer’s length of service, he is also the least well-known Justice. Less than half have any opinion of Breyer at all.
Partisans have very distinct views of all the other Justices. For Republicans, the most popular are Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving Justice (appointed by President George H. W. Bush), and Brett Kavanaugh, who has been on the Court for less than two years, are the most popular with Republicans, followed by Neil Gorsuch. Democrats give their highest ratings to two women Justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
While the Court and its Chief Justice get decent ratings from the public, there is some confusion about what the political ideology of the judicial branch – and its leader – might be. Democrats tend to describe the Court and the Chief Justice leader as moderate or conservative in ideology, while Republicans call their ideology moderate or even liberal.
Methodology: The most recent Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US adult citizens interviewed online between July 12 - 14, 2020. The approximate margin of error is 3.3 percentage points for the overall sample. Samples are weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens.