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Why do Americans approve of Roberts but not his court?

The country’s approval of the Supreme Court is declining but they still have faith in the chief. 

WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court has achieved a near anomaly in modern politics, according to poll numbers published Monday that suggest Americans are craving even the appearance of moderation on an increasingly radical court. 

Gallup conducted the survey in early December, finding that 60% of Americans approve of how Roberts is handling his role — more than any of the other U.S. leaders in the survey. The chief justice enjoyed high marks from Republicans, Democrats, and independents, with all groups giving him majority approval. This comes just months after another Gallup poll showed the approval rating of the court as a whole had dipped to a new low. 

While it’s logical why Republicans might be eager to support the chief justice of a court that is ready to expand Second Amendment rights while restricting abortion and voting rights, it’s not exactly clear what Democrats see in him. 

“It's just really strange to me that Democrats and independents would have such strong favorability for the chief justice given that he's been in the majority of pretty much … every major conservative outcome during his tenure,” Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, said in a phone call. “Maybe he's not as far to the right as Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch, but he's still very conservative, and his writing is very conservative, and the outcomes of the cases in which he is in the majority are very conservative.” 

Roberts is an institutionalist and has taken on the role of trying to maintain the court’s legitimacy as the polarization of fellow justices increases. In 2018, Roberts took the unusual step of rebuking the sitting president in order to defend the judiciary’s independence. In his public comments and opinions, the chief justice has crafted a persona for himself as someone who cares how the court’s decisions affect the nation. 

“This poll shows that, on a bipartisan basis, Americans respect a justice who considers consequences, and is not arrogantly mired in a know-it-all ideology,” said Richard Bernstein, an appellate lawyer. “Such a justice is better able to perform the court's most important function — to help hold the country together by resolving highly charged disputes on a basis that warrants broad public acceptance.” 

It’s possible Democrats approve of Roberts because, as compared with his colleagues, he appears less inclined to overturn precedents or because he takes a stand to protect the integrity of the court. 

“It's such a low bar though, right,” Roth said. “I think you're asking for someone to just not light himself on fire and run around D.C. naked and like, yeah, he's checked that box, but I don't know what it is. I really don't.”

In recent years, some have portrayed Roberts as more of a moderate because of his occasional breaks with his conservative colleagues. These decisions often reflected his reverence for the court’s legitimacy and his institutionalist thinking. But while he may take a more moderate approach than his colleagues, he’s definitely not the fourth liberal on the bench. 

“The bottom line is Chief Justice Roberts is not moderate,” Roth said. “He's more of an incrementalist. He's just as conservative as anyone on the right wing of the court, he just wants to go at a more steady pace other than quick and dirty like some of the other conservatives want to go.” 

Some liberals may point to recent decisions the court has made that uphold the Affordable Care Act or legalize same-sex marriage, but the few wins for Democrats pale in the face of what the court has done and will do for Republicans. 

With Democrats taking few electoral wins, they could be more concerned with what the president and members of Congress are doing and less concerned with the justices. Flare-ups over court nominations or individual court decisions occur, but these grievances tend to fade once they slip from the headlines. 

“People aren't paying attention to the court,” Roth said. “Despite everything that we've seen in the last five years with Scalia's death and Ginsberg's death and all these new justices … it's not as top of mind as what's going on in the other two branches, and that's a real shame because it's become the most powerful and least accountable, the third branch. I think that that inconsistency tells a tale of a lack of attention to the courts day to day work and that makes me sad.” 

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