Senior legal reporter Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux explains why the Supreme Court’s approval rating has dropped over the past few months. For most of the court’s history, it has largely followed public opinion, but in today’s hyperpartisan environment, will a low approval rating sway the court?
The Supreme Court is usually people’s favorite branch of government. Robes, justice — what’s not to love?
But right now, according to a Marquette University Law School poll conducted in May, 55 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the Supreme Court, while just 44 percent approve.
Now, on its own, that’s not so surprising. The court’s approval has sunk into the 40s before. But what’s really striking is how fast those numbers have changed. Just two months earlier, the Supreme Court’s approval ratings were reversed – 45 percent disapproved, and 54 percent approved.
So, what’s going on? Well, at the beginning of May, a leaked Supreme Court opinion suggested that five justices were ready to overturn Roe v. Wade. That’s the 1973 ruling that established Americans’ constitutional right to have an abortion.
Roe is popular. Polls consistently find that majorities of Americans don’t want the Supreme Court to overrule it. And although public opinion on abortion is hard to pin down because people’s views just aren’t very clear-cut, the vast majority does not want abortion to become completely illegal. And that’s exactly what would happen in some states if Roe were gone.
But the leaked opinion isn’t making everyone mad. Republicans’ approval of the court is just as high now as it was in March — maybe even a little bit higher. It’s Democrats and independents who are unhappy.
For most of the court’s history, it has largely followed public opinion. Remember, the Supreme Court doesn’t control the Army. It doesn’t control the country’s budget. People do what it says because they trust the court as an institution. And if they stop believing that the court is fair and impartial — or that it’s doing the right thing — that could be very bad for the rule of law.
But in today’s hyperpartisan environment, that might be a gamble the court’s conservative majority is willing to make. Their approval rating could fall even further — and they might not even care.