The Supreme Court is the most mysterious branch of US government, and its work is least understood by the public. Yet, it is the most trusted.
A new Marquette Law School poll (pdf) of more than 1,400 registered voters across the political spectrum and country found that a majority—57% to be precise—trust the court more than the executive or congressional branches. Only 22% trusted Congress the most, and a mere 21% placed the highest confidence in the presidency.
What’s more, a nearly two-thirds majority of Americans trust that the justices are following the law, and not political ideology, when deciding cases. Despite the oft-alleged polarization of the people, many seem to agree that the justices are doing their jobs. “While some see the Court as driven by politics, a near two-to-one majority say justices base their decisions primarily on the law,” the pollsters found.
They noted that there was a “very weak” and “statistically insignificant” relationship between political affiliations and views of whether the justices base their decisions primarily on politics or the law. “In a highly polarized environment, this lack of relationship may serve as buffer to further politicization of the Court,” the pollsters write.
Indeed, very few of the respondents, whatever their political ideology, tended to see the court as extreme. Half characterized it as ideologically moderate, in stark contrast to recent rhetoric about the public perceptions of the court’s ideological leanings and legitimacy. “Despite partisan battles over the US Supreme Court in recent decades, the largest group, 50%, considers the Court to occupy a ‘moderate’ position on the liberal-conservative continuum…[and] few respondents see the Court as extreme in either ideological direction, with only 9% combined saying that it is either very conservative or very liberal,” the report states.
That’s welcome news to the justices, no doubt, who are continually emphasizing their collegiality and nonpartisanship in books and speeches, insisting they aren’t political actors. And the perception is borne out by some decisions issued last term, where the justices often didn’t align according to conservative or liberal ideology as might be expected (although whether that trend will continue this term, which is packed with controversial matters, remains to be seen).
That said, politics definitely did influence respondents’ answers in some areas. For example, confidence in the court varies by political party. High confidence was most common among those who identify as Republican, at 54%. But only 34% of Democrats expressed the same level of trust in the justices, and a mere 23% of Independents and 21% of those who “lean Democrat” shared this confidence.
The more you know
The more they know about the Constitution and the justices’ decisions, the more Americans across the political spectrum view the court favorably. That is an exception to the general rule of familiarity breeding contempt, of course. “Familiarity breeds support in the case of the Court,” the pollsters write.
But few are truly familiar with it or the nation’s foundational legal document, they lament, and exposure to the justices’ constitutional interpretations comes mostly through news accounts of controversial cases, which tend to focus on the outcomes and not the reasoning underlying decisions, offering a summary view of the issues at best. Meanwhile, presidential nominations of high court appointments are often seen through a political lens. Because justices are appointed by the president and must be confirmed by legislators, this influences perceptions of decisions, ultimately, as well as of individual justices.
“The public is not learned in the law, nor is it especially well informed about the details of the Court. Nonetheless [it] is urged to consider the Court in political debate, in voting decisions, and ultimately in their view of the Court as a legitimate arbiter of the law. Our survey attempts to understand the boundaries of the public’s knowledge,” the pollsters explain.
What they found after asking 68 questions on everything from the Bill of Rights to the court’s review powers to how people get their news is that fewer than half of the 1,420 individuals polled—only 43%—have ever read the entire Constitution. Those who did answered more factual questions correctly, better understood the court’s work and decisions as well as its relationship to other branches of government, and were less inclined to want to impose term limits on the justices or add more of them to the bench, as has been suggested.
“Confidence in the Court is largely structured by how much knowledge and awareness citizens have, with political preferences also influencing confidence. There is substantial support for restructuring the institution, but this support is less among those most knowledgeable about the Court,” the report concludes.
In other words, the Supreme Court is exceptional in its ability to command respect, especially compared to other government branches, and most of all from citizens who understand the justices’ constitutional role. However, the complexity of their work dooms them to remain widely misunderstood by most.