The judiciary is meant to be the least partisan branch, but many Americans perceive a political tilt in the Supreme Court – in the nine people on the bench and also in the decisions they reach. And while many Republicans think the Court leans against their party, Democrats are especially likely to see bias and disapprove of the Court, two-thirds of whose members were appointed by Republican presidents.
As the Court begins its new session Monday, with many potentially politically significant cases, its rating from the public is among its most negative in the time the Economist/YouGov Poll has asked respondents to rate the Court. In the latest poll, just over one-third of Americans approve of how the Court is handling its job, with more disapproving. (The poll was conducted before the Court announced that Justice Brett Kavanaugh had tested positive for COVID-19.)
A majority of Republicans approve of how the Court is working, while only one quarter of Democrats do. Three in five Democrats disapprove while just one-third of Republicans do.
The Court began this year with better ratings from Democrats and worse ratings from Republicans. It had rejected all the cases brought by Republicans seeking to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, likely lowering its ratings among Republicans. But after rulings in June and July, including one that sustained an Arizona voting law that limited the counting of certain ballots and one that limited union organizing, Democrats’ opinion of the Court dropped.
Both parties have complaints about the Court’s decision-making process, too. Just one in four Americans believe the Court is impartial in its decisions, while nearly twice as many believe it favors one group more than another. Democrats are especially likely to view the Court as favoring one group over another, but as many Republicans agree there is favoritism as believe the Court is impartial in its decisions.
Which groups do people think the Supreme Court favors? A majority of Democrats believe the Court is biased against their party, while just 6% of Republicans agree the Court is biased against Democrats. Nearly four in ten Republicans see bias in the other direction – against Republicans; 4% of Democrats agree.
Some of the individual Justices clearly are perceived very differently by respondents’ political party, too, though the connection to the party of the president who appointed the Justice isn’t always straightforward.
Stephen Breyer, age 82, has served the second-longest amount of time on the Court, behind only Clarence Thomas. But Breyer is the least known Justice, with less than half of Americans expressing any opinion at all about him.
He also fares better with Republicans than do both other Democratic appointees, and better with Republicans than Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts has written several opinions in the past which appeared to help Democratic interests, and angered many Republicans, including keeping the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. More Republicans have an unfavorable view of Roberts than have a favorable one.
Confirmation battles often are the most recent times for headlines about individual Justices, and their impact can persist. Three Justices appointed by Republican presidents who had contentious confirmation battles — Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and the newest Justice, Amy Coney Barrett — receive highly favorable assessments from Republicans and highly negative ones from Democrats.
The ratings of two other Republican appointees, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, follow the same pattern. But these Justices’ confirmation hearings had fewer fireworks and were longer ago. Nearly half of Americans express no opinion about Gorsuch and Alito.
Two appointments of Democratic presidents, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, are better known than Breyer, and receive favorable ratings from Democrats and unfavorable ones from Republicans.
Americans prefer that Justices retire with no attention, or only some attention, to the political party of the president who will name their successor. Half of Democrats, compared with only a third of Republicans, believe there should be at least some attention paid to the party of the appointing president – perhaps remembering last year’s Donald Trump appointment of Coney Barrett to fill the seat left open by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
When asked whether Breyer should retire, Democrats say he should – and by a four to one margin (56% to 14%). Republicans, who are as likely to have positive as negative assessments of Breyer, don’t want him to leave the bench: 29% say he should, but 35% disagree.
Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between September 26 - 28, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as 2016 and 2020 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens. The margin of error is approximately 2.7% for the overall sample.