The Supreme Court starts its new term with dismal approval ratings

Public opinion of the court is strongly polarized along partisan lines.

October 2, 2023, 4:05 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on June 23, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on June 23, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Today kicks off the first day of the Supreme Court’s new term, and to mark the occasion, we decided to take a look at where public opinion of the institution stands and how it might be shaped by future cases on the docket. Numbers from a new average we built (similar to our presidential approval tracker) to track approval of the Supreme Court over time show that the court remains extremely unpopular with the American public: At the time of publication, an average of 38 percent of Americans approved of the job the Supreme Court is doing while 54 percent disapproved, for an average net approval rating of -16 percentage points. (Be on the lookout for a full launch of the tracker soon.)

As its new term commences, the question remains whether the court will be able to rehabilitate its public image or continue to see an erosion of trust. The court’s net approval rating at the beginning of September was the lowest since our tracker began in December 2020. Other metrics besides approval, like favorability and confidence, have also registered record lows. In a Pew Research survey from July, the court’s favorability was the lowest since they began asking the question back in 1987. And 62 percent of adults in an April Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll said that they had not very much or no confidence at all in the Supreme Court.

Public opinion of the court also remains highly polarized along partisan lines. According to our polling average, the court currently has a net approval rating of -54 points among Democrats and +21 points among Republicans, a gap of 75 percentage points. That’s still smaller than the chasm that opened following the Dobbs decision, when there was a gap of a whopping 106 points (-62 net approval among Democrats and +44 net approval among Republicans), the largest divide we’ve registered in our average. But a 75-point spread is nothing to sneeze at; if the court hopes to improve its standing and legitimacy among the public, that gap will first need to close considerably.

Some of the major cases the court will take up in the next few months include challenges to the Chevron doctrine, a somewhat arcane precedent that would severely restrict the government’s regulatory powers if overturned, and a law restricting access to guns for individuals subject to domestic violence orders. There’s also a lawsuit challenging the funding structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a case dealing with retaliations against whistleblowers. Another case that hasn’t officially been taken up, but that the court is almost certain to hear, is an appeal of a district court ruling restricting access to the common abortion drug mifepristone. The high court put that ruling on hold temporarily while it considers whether to hear the case.

“I think these are fairly normal cases, and they’re not going to shake public opinion up too much,” particularly among those who already have unfavorable opinions of the court, said Michael Salamone, a political scientist at Washington State University who studies public opinion and the Supreme Court. Unless there are a lot of surprising liberal decisions in the next term that cut against the court’s conservative image, Salamone argued, the needle isn’t likely to move much. Any of these cases could result in surprising coalitions or more backroom deal-making between swing justices. But as long as the court’s rulings remain as ideologically extreme as it’s been the past few years, expect the public’s polarized — and negative — views of the institution to remain.

Of course, approval of the Supreme Court isn’t a linear trend. While it’s plunged after broadly unpopular decisions, it’s also rebounded at times, including during last term. For a brief moment in mid-April, the court actually had a positive net approval rating (albeit of just 2 points). And initially at least, the court's rulings last term appeared to be mostly in line with public opinion.

Data from SCOTUSpoll, a collaboration between researchers from Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Texas, shows that the public agreed with the court’s rulings in eight of the 11* biggest cases of this past term. In only two cases out of 11 did the public disagree with the final outcome — Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which the court drastically curtailed the government’s power to regulate wetlands under the Clean Water Act, and Twitter v. Taamneh, where the court ruled that tech companies could not be sued for videos posted to their platforms by terrorist groups. (In Biden v. Nebraska, the student loan forgiveness case, the public was split evenly, with 50 percent believing the Biden administration overstepped its authority in enacting the debt forgiveness plan, and 50 percent believing that it did not.)

That rate of agreement is much higher than in 2021 and 2022, when SCOTUSpoll found that Americans only agreed with 44 and 50 percent of the court’s rulings, respectively. Importantly, though, these polls were conducted before the court released its opinions in each case. News coverage and negative reactions from some public figures likely affected how the public viewed those decisions after the fact. “Public officials are able to effectively use the court as a point of campaigning,” Salamone said. Even if the decisions in the last term weren’t hugely out of line with the general public’s views, “they were definitely something that public officials were able to use as talking points” to shape Americans’ opinions of the court.

Take, for example, President Biden’s comments following the decision by the court to overturn affirmative action in college admissions earlier this summer: “This is not a normal court,” he proclaimed, echoing other statements by prominent Democratic leaders that likely affected how many Democrats received the ruling, even among those who perhaps didn’t have strong opinions on the case beforehand.

It’s even gotten to the point where some of the justices themselves have expressed concern over both the perception and reality of the court’s ideological divides. Add that to the steady stream of ethics scandals that have continued to trickle out since April, and you get the recipe for an unhappy public — in our average, the court’s net approval rating has fallen 17 points since it began releasing the biggest opinions of the term in May, despite the data showing public agreement with most of those decisions.

It’s possible though, that a period of no news could be good news for the court: As I wrote earlier this summer, voters’ approval could tick up over time as recent news about the court recedes in their minds. But I wouldn’t count on it yet, at least in the short term — another ethics scandal just dropped a week and a half ago.

*Excluding Gonzalez v. Google, in which the Court remanded the case back to lower courts for further consideration.

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