WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After an important term in which the U.S. Supreme Court made landmark decisions on cases involving voting rights, gay rights, and affirmative action, the institution's approval rating has declined to its lowest level since June 2005. Forty-three percent of Americans now approve of the Supreme Court, down six percentage points from September of last year. Slightly more Americans disapprove of the court (46%) than approve, which has happened only one other time since Gallup first asked this question in 2000.
The current results stem from a July 10-14 Gallup poll -- shortly after the conclusion of the 2012-2013 Supreme Court term that included major rulings on key social issues. Together, the court's decisions are difficult to pigeonhole ideologically -- the court struck down a 1996 law prohibiting federal recognition of gay marriage, while also invalidating portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Nonetheless, they involve controversial issues for the American public, and even within the court itself, which decided these two cases by slim 5-4 margins.
Republicans' Approval of Court Near All-Time Low
Less than a third (31%) of self-identified Republicans approve of the Supreme Court, close to the record low of 29% measured shortly after the court's ruling on the healthcare law last year. While a majority of Democrats, 58%, approve of the high court, their approval is now lower than it was in July of last year, when 68% approved. Independents, meanwhile, register a 39% approval rating of the court, the lowest measured for this group since Gallup first asked the question.
More broadly, though the Supreme Court is often portrayed as an apolitical institution, it has often been a source of significant polarization among the two political parties. Partisan groups' approval of the court appears to have some relationship to the party controlling the presidency.
Democrats' approval of the Supreme Court has generally outpaced Republicans' approval since 2009, when President Barack Obama took office. This represents a reversal of a trend evident during the George W. Bush presidency, when Republicans generally were more likely than Democrats to approve of the court.
This partisan divide in the court's approval ratings is at least partly related to a president's power to nominate candidates of his choosing to the court. In particular, years featuring new presidential appointments tend to stoke partisan sentiments. For example, in 2009, Democrats' approval of the court spiked after Obama nominated current Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and in September 2005, Republicans' approval of the court climbed as a result of John Roberts' in-process confirmation hearings after his nomination by Bush. However, party views also fluctuate with the stream of court rulings and as individuals re-assess their perceptions of the dominant ideology of the court, such as after the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision that effectively decided the 2000 presidential election.
Chief Justice Roberts' Favorability Ratings Fall to New Low
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts' favorable rating has fallen to a new low of 31% from 39% in July 2012, shortly after Roberts as part of a five-member majority upheld the Affordable Care Act. Twenty-seven percent of Americans now disapprove of Roberts. Interestingly, 42% have no opinion of him, up from 31% in July 2012, when Roberts was a central figure in the news due to the ACA ruling.
Prior to 2012, Gallup previously measured Roberts' favorability during his nomination hearings in September 2005. At that point, his image was more positive, with 50% of Americans viewing him favorably and 17% unfavorably.
Thirty-three percent of Republicans now hold a favorable opinion of Roberts -- who commanded 67% favorability among Republicans during his nomination hearings. While Republicans' ratings of Roberts have dropped precipitously, his image has also worsened among Democrats. Thirty-five percent of Democrats currently have a favorable opinion of Roberts, who dissented on the ruling that overturned a law banning federal recognition of gay marriage. In 2012, after Roberts cast a crucial vote upholding the healthcare law, 68% of Democrats were favorable toward him.
The Supreme Court's approval rating stands nearly at an all-time low after some major decisions that included disappointments for both sides of the political aisle. While the justices' decisions lacked a clear ideological "swing," Republicans are among the most displeased with the nation's top court, although the majority of justices on the court -- including Chief Justice Roberts -- were appointed by Republican presidents.
The public's image of the court is slightly more negative than positive for only the second time in more than a decade. The court's declining approval rating resembles the lack of confidence Americans increasingly have in the other two branches of government. Perhaps the justices can take comfort in that the high court's approval rating remains well ahead of the dismally viewed Congress, and similar to the president's approval rating of 47%.
However, unlike Congress or the presidency, one might expect the Supreme Court, as a nominally nonpartisan institution, to be sheltered from the public disaffection that has chipped away at the ratings of the other two branches. In reality, though, the court has often been a source of political polarization since 2000 and is hardly immune to the same political forces plaguing the other two branches.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted July 10-14, 2013, on the Gallup Daily tracking survey, with a random sample of 2,027 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by region. Landline and cell telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2012 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the July-December 2011 National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the 2010 census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.