WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court’s approval ratings have been declining over the past few years, but a recent plummet in the high court’s favorability is overwhelmingly coming from Democrats who report that they consider the court a conservative powerhouse.
The Pew Research Center released the numbers Thursday, finding that Americans have a more negative view of the Supreme Court today as compared with their views at any time in the last three decades. That low rating is heavily driven by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Only 28% of Democrats view the high court favorably according to the new August poll. This number is down 18 percentage points since January and almost 40 points since 2020.
“This is a really striking decline in the court's favorability rating and overall views of the court in a relatively short period of time, and virtually all this has been driven by change among Democrats,” Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew, said in a phone call. “Democrats, by and large, have become much more critical of the Supreme Court than they've ever been in the last two or three decades plus. It's a rather extraordinary shift in a pretty short period of time.”
The decline in favorability from Democrats coincides with the court’s landmark rulings on abortion, gun rights, and climate in the last term. Republicans nudged a somewhat similar decline in 2015 when the court upheld the right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.
“The court's decisions this term, and in particular its decision on abortion, had a great impact on especially Democratic views of the court,” Doherty said. “I mean, the best parallel to this would be the same-sex marriage ruling in 2015 when ratings of the court went down among Republicans, but it wasn't quite as stark or dramatic as we're seeing among Democrats today.”
Another insight from the study is that Democrats are largely just as angry now as they were in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. A survey by Pew conducted between June 27 and July 4 showed that 82% of Democrats disagreed with the court’s decision.
“In our polling and other polling, Americans don't tend to pay a great deal of attention to the work of the court in most years unless there's a major decision,” Doherty said. “Well, this was a very, very important decision, obviously, and it really did galvanize the public, especially Democrats, in a way that we haven't seen in quite a while.”
Republicans showed a moderate increase in favorability of the court, increasing their approval by 8 percentage points from polling at the start of the year.
Overall, only 48% of Americans view the court favorably, with 49% holding an unfavorable view.
“For most of these three decades of polling, we've seen the Supreme Court have a net favorable rating, meaning its favorable ratings were greater than its unfavorable rating,” Doherty said. “Now, today, it's about 50/50.”
The new polling shows favorability of the court is highest among men at 52%, whereas a majority of women — 51% — viewed the court as unfavorable. Almost half of white Americans viewed the court favorably, but a majority of Black adults — 59% — held an unfavorable view of the court. Younger Americans — those under 30 — had the lowest favorability rating of the court at 32%, while the majority of older Americans — adults ages 50 and above — approved of the court.
Partisan divides between Americans' views on the Supreme Court have also exploded in the last few years. Views of the court between Democrats and Republicans are separated by 45 percentage points — wider than any time over the last 35 years. Experts say this is an unprecedented gap between Democrats and Republicans' views on the court.
“Partisan divisions have grown in the country over the last few decades,” Doherty said. “We've documented that on a number of issues and in a number of ways, but this is the largest gap we've ever seen on the court — in fact, larger than we saw in the wake of that controversial 2015 decision on same-sex marriage.”
While most issues in American politics are becoming increasingly more partisan, this marks a stark moment for an institution that is supposed to be driven by the rule of law and not politics. Democrats who think the justices are allowing their rulings to be influenced by politics increased to 51%.
“What we found even before this decision was that a lot of Americans thought it was very important that the courts not be influenced by politics,” Doherty said.
He continued: “The share of Democrats who say the court does a poor job of keeping politics out of their decisions has about doubled since January from 26% to 51%. I think that's reflected in this overall favorability rating that they see the court is influenced by politics, and its a political direction that Democrats obviously don't like.”
Republicans meanwhile felt increasingly — from 21% to 33% — that the justices did a good job of keeping their politics separate from their rulings.
Almost half of Americans see the court as conservative — an increase over the last two years. For Democrats that number rises to 66%, with only 25% viewing the court as “middle of the road.”
The poll also shows a growing number of Americans who think the high court holds too much power. About half of the public thinks the court holds an appropriate amount of power, but the number of Americans who think the court is too powerful grew by 15 percentage points since January to 45%.
Democrats' views on the court’s power have also shifted dramatically over the past two years. In August 2020, 23% of Democrats said the court held too much power. That number rose to 40% in January but now has jumped to 64%.
The publics’ perception of the court has entered a new era, polling experts say. Previously, disagreements over the high court’s rulings did not usually translate so starkly to their favorability overall.
“This was kind of a new moment for the court in some ways vis-à-vis the public. … It's hard to know whether this reaction will fade over time, but certainly it's very intense right now,” Doherty said. “With the conservative majority on the court, one can anticipate decisions, possibly, that Democrats might disagree with in the future, and this may just cement the low rating that the court has among Democrats.”
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