Americans' beliefs about politicization of Supreme Court differ widely based on political affiliation
Three-quarters of Democrats say the court is politically motivated.
Americans’ views about the Supreme Court’s most recent decisions -- from curtailing the use of race-based affirmative action in higher education, blocking student loan forgiveness, and more -- varied widely based on political affiliation.
New polling conducted by ABC News/Ipsos shows that Americans’ responses to the Supreme Court have been asymmetric, with the percentage of Republicans and independents who view the court’s decisions as driven by politics remaining largely unchanged. Meanwhile, Democrats increasingly say they believe the justices render judgments on the basis of their political views rather than on the basis of law. While only a third of Republicans and half of independents say the court rules mainly on the basis of partisan political views, three-quarters of Democrats now hold that view -- a spike of 20 percentage points since a year and a half ago when the question was asked in a January 2022 ABC News/Ipsos poll.
ABC News sought out poll respondents to get a deeper understanding of their views. Follow-up interviews with the poll respondents indicate a high level of polarization while thinking within partisan groups is somewhat diverse. Members of both parties have varying perceptions about the degree of the court’s politicization, whether or not it is a matter of concern, and what ought to be done about it. All respondents asked to be identified only by their first names except where otherwise indicated.
A strong majority of Republicans -- about two-thirds, according to ABC News/Ipsos polling -- believe that Supreme Court justices make their decisions on the basis of law, not politics.
Asha Urban, who spoke with ABC News at a Trump rally in South Carolina earlier this month, counts herself among that group, saying the justices are focused on the law.
“Rule on the law, and push other things that need to be ruled in the states back to the states,” she said.
Urban views the appointment of a trio of Supreme Court justices as a hallmark of former President Donald Trump’s tenure, and she said she believes the Trump-appointed justices are correcting a legacy of politicized rulings prior to his presidency.
“He campaigned on bringing in conservative judges who would be constitutionalists, not politicians,” she said. “I think that's what most of us want.”
Michael, a Republican from South Carolina, takes a different view. He is one of about a third of Republicans who said that the Supreme Court justices rule on the basis of their personal political views -- and he was surprised to hear it was a more commonly held belief on the other side of the aisle.
“It distresses me that I might lean towards the Democrats,” he joked.
He agrees with the court’s recent decisions on affirmative action and student loans. But the 74-year-old is concerned by the fact that the court’s decision-making could become nakedly political in the future -- a trend he sees as related to the country’s polarization in general.
“I’m worried that they’re not going by the law,” he said. “They’re not elected. When they’re just served up by a president ... and it’s for life, we have no recourse. You can’t vote ’em out.”
Dwight Edward Allen, a 47-year-old from Kentucky who describes himself as “more of a conservative than a Republican,” voiced concerns about the direction of the court. While he believes that the justices make sound legal decisions most of the time, including their recent decision regarding student loans, he said that the court is becoming more political, and specifically that it is “going backwards.”
“That’s good if you’re white or privileged, but if you’re just trying to get by, then it’s not,” he said.
Following a year of several contentious rulings, many Democrats perceive the Supreme Court as an increasingly politicized institution, according to ABC News/Ipsos polling.
Natalie is one such Democrat concerned about partisanship on the highest court. She said that her experience as a Filipina immigrant instilled in her a deep appreciation for nonpartisan judicial systems and that she is concerned by what she perceives as the weakening of U.S. democracy more generally.
“I grew up under martial law in the Philippines, so I know what it's like to live under a dictatorship. I know what it's like when the Supreme Court is influenced by the politicians who are in power,” she said.
Natalie cited the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on affirmative action, President Joe Biden’s student loan debt policy and abortion as evidence that the court is not making decisions strictly on the basis of the law.
“Growing up in a country where we always looked up to the democratic principles of the United States, and seeing how it's getting eroded right now, is worrisome to me,” she added.
Vicki, another Democrat concerned about partisanship on the court, also says she has observed an increase in the influence of politics on the court during the last year.
“I think that they’re more partisan now than they have been historically,” she shared.
Vicki emphasized that justices should remain true to the letter of the law and not be beholden to politicians or parties -- something she said has been lacking in recent months.
“I idealistically believe that they should be ruling based on what’s written in the Constitution, versus what the party behind the president which appointed them might support,” she said.
Independents are split roughly evenly regarding whether the court rules mainly on the basis of the law, according to ABC News/Ipsos polling.
Greg Freeman, an independent, said that although the current Supreme Court justices’ rulings carry partisan biases, they are reasonable interpretations of the law.
“Even though it appears that what they’re doing right now is partisan, ... I think we’re just seeing that the decisions of the court are very reflective of the presidents who nominated them,” he said.
That partisanship doesn’t erode Freeman’s confidence in the Court. Instead, the 49-year-old South Carolinian -- who says that he has major concerns with both political parties -- sees it as part of the natural power struggles that take place within a democracy.
“When certain matters were interpreted differently in previous Supreme Court rulings, conservatives railed against a ‘liberal’ court. Now that the reverse is arguably true, liberals are railing against a mostly conservative court,” Freeman wrote in an email to ABC News. “Partisanship in the Court is nothing new, and it plays a big part in how presidents are chosen by voters. Always has, always will.”
Dan, another independent from California, agreed with Freeman’s diagnosis, but added that the trend worries him. A self-described swing voter, he declined to share his views on specific cases but said he senses that the court has become more political over the past decade.
“It seems to me the current court is a little biased. ... I’m worried that the current Supreme Court would reverse long-term positions,” he said. “Ten years ago, I would not have said that.”
Dan said that he would not support expanding the number of justices on the court, a solution that has been proposed by some Democratic lawmakers, if the justices were still politically appointed. However, he expressed broad support for reforming the court to make it less partisan, including establishing term limits for Supreme Court justices.
“I think they should explore those options,” Dan said.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Ipsos poll was conducted using Ipsos Public Affairs' KnowledgePanel® June 30-July 1, 2023, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 937 U.S. adults with oversamples of Black, Hispanic and Asian respondents weighted to their correct proportions in the general population. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.6 points, including the design effect. Partisan divisions are 26-25-41 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents. See the poll's topline results and details on the methodology here.
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