The Supreme Court Is Getting Less Unpopular

Ethics scandals. A new justice. Overturning the nearly 50-year-old constitutional right to abortion. The Supreme Court has had quite a year — and the public has noticed. 

Heading into the thick of its decision season, disapproval of the Supreme Court is higher now than at almost any point since at least December 2020, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of polls on the subject. And a wide partisan gap has emerged between Democrats and Republicans, underscoring growing concerns about the court’s legitimacy as a non-political institution. Notably, though, both of these trends have started to reverse themselves in recent months as Democrats, in particular, have become more forgiving toward the institution.

At the end of 2020, the Supreme Court had an average approval rating of 42 percent and an average disapproval rating of 33 percent, for a net approval rating of +10 percentage points (after rounding). But throughout the next two years, a steady stream of mostly unpopular rulings (culminating with Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) chipped away at its popularity. By the end of the court’s last term in July 2022, immediately following the Dobbs decision, its net approval rating had plunged to -8 percentage points (39 percent to 48 percent, after rounding). 

But lately, these numbers have moderated somewhat. As of June 6, the court’s net approval rating had narrowed to close to even (-2 points). And the court’s approval rating was back to the same place it was in December 2020: 42 percent. 

This improvement might seem surprising, since Dobbs remains in effect and GOP-led states have used it as recently as last month to pass an array of unpopular abortion bans and restrictions. But the reason could be pretty simple: Americans just aren’t thinking about the decision too much anymore. “One thing we know about voters in general is that they’re pretty myopic,” said Joseph Ura, a political scientist at Texas A&M University who has written about support for the high court. As high-salience events like Dobbs get further in the rearview mirror, “people’s emotional political reactions to them decay.” And in the past several months, Ura said, as the Supreme Court has been hearing cases rather than handing down a sequence of unpopular decisions, voters’ disapproval has relaxed.

The other major trend in public opinion of the court that has emerged over the past few years is a yawning partisan divide. At the beginning of March 2021, Democrats and Republicans approved of the court at essentially the same rate: 46 and 45 percent, respectively. From there, the percentage of Republicans who approved of the court surged, while the percentage of Democrats plummeted. At its peak last September, during the height of the midterm election season, the gap between Republican and Democratic approval of the court was 39 points. 

Curiously, though, since the midterms, the partisan gap has shrunk by almost half — though it remains much larger (25 points) than it was in early 2021. Although this is partially due to Republicans approving of the court at slightly lower rates, this shrinking is primarily because the Supreme Court’s approval rating among Democrats has increased by 10 points since mid-August 2022. 

Why have Democrats suddenly become more favorable toward the high court? According to Ura, “aggregate support for the Supreme Court is tied strongly to support for the government in general.” After an election season dominated by the Dobbs decision, he said, Democrats are likely feeling better about the government overall. Even though they lost control of the House of Representatives, they gained a seat in the Senate and broadly overperformed expectations across the board, generating a slew of positive coverage for the party. And some states, like Michigan, enshrined abortion protections into their state constitutions, providing crucial victories for Democrats. Those positive feelings might be carrying over to other parts of the government, Ura said, particularly parts like the Supreme Court that weren’t generating bad headlines at the time. 

But looking beyond the politics of the midterms, “Democrats tend to be, by nature, more passive supporters of the court, in the sense that they’re pro-institutionalist,” said Maya Sen, a professor at Harvard University who studies the court. Older Democrats in particular, she said, “have this tendency to view the court as a potential force for good.” This is reflected in the data: A 2021 study Sen co-authored showed that Democrats consistently underestimate how conservative the Supreme Court really is. As Dobbs gets further in the past, Democrats could be reverting to their more pro-institutionalist tendencies. 

And then there’s the fact that the court currently isn’t dealing with cases as explosive as Dobbs was. “It’s a slightly more moderate docket,” Sen said. The highest-profile case this term deals with affirmative action, an issue that Americans feel less strongly about than abortion (and one they’re more conservative on too). This could be another reason why partisan polarization and disapproval as a whole are going down: The Supreme Court hasn’t been — and, in all likelihood, won’t be — rocking the boat quite as much as it did last term, even if it is still a historically conservative and ideological bench.

It’s unclear whether this slight convergence of Democratic and Republican opinion will survive past the next wave of decisions and the recent web of ethics scandals that have entangled the court. “We’re really in uncharted waters here,” Sen said. “There hasn’t been a ruling like Dobbs that’s so massively unpopular in recent modern history.” What is clear is that we’re in an unprecedented era for the court, both in terms of its ideologically extreme composition and the scale and unpopularity of many of its recent rulings. The decisions handed down this month will give us a key insight into how insulated or not the court has become from public opinion.

Mary Radcliffe contributed research. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux contributed reporting.

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