Public Support for the Supreme Court: The Promise and Peril of Arizona v. United States

This is the first of a series of posts about Latinos and their views of the U.S. Supreme Court, and is part of a larger research project being conducted by Professor Ura and Professor Pedraza. Survey methodology and questionnaires are located here.

On Friday, The New York Times reported the results of a national survey gauging public approval of the Supreme Court. The survey shows that approval of the Supreme Court is around 44%—down from the high sixties during the 1980s. The survey also shows that more than three-quarters of Americans (76%) believe that Supreme Court justices are influenced by “personal and political views” in addition to “legal analysis.” Additionally, survey respondents expressed some disaffection with life tenure for Supreme Court justices. Sixty percent of respondents called justices’ life tenure a “bad thing,” agreeing that it “gives them too much power.” Only 33% called life tenure “a good thing,” that keeps the justices “independent.” The Time’s Supreme Court correspondent, Adam Liptak, calls the poll’s results “a fresh indication that the court’s standing with the public has slipped significantly.”

A survey we conducted in cooperation with Latino Decisions at the same time as The New York Time’s poll, however, shows that the position of the Supreme Court is not so dire. Our poll included representative national samples of 609 Latinos and 500 non-Latinos (conducted May 28-June 3, 2012), and shows how the Court’s upcoming ruling in the healthcare case and the Arizona immigration case might influence the Court’s public standing.

The NY Times reports that just 44% of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing. Though our survey did not specifically ask respondents whether they “approved or disapproved” of the job the Supreme Court is doing, we did ask three other questions investigating Americans’ attitudes about the performance of the Supreme Court.

First, we asked respondents, “How much confidence do you have in the Supreme Court?” Eighty-four percent of respondents express confidence in the Court, 24%, said they had “a great deal” of confidence, and 60% said “some” confidence in the Supreme Court. Only 13% said they had “hardly any” confidence in the Supreme Court.

Next, we asked respondents, “How well do you think the Supreme Court does its main job in government?” Once again, large majorities indicated positive evaluations of the Court. Seventy-four percent said the Court does a “great job” (10%) or a “pretty good job” (64%). Only 23% said the court does either “not a very good job” (16%) or a “poor job” (7%).

Finally, we asked, “Would you say the Supreme Court is too liberal, too conservative, or about right in its decisions?” Here, we find strikingly similar results to the Time’s survey. Only 43% of our respondents said the Supreme Court’s decisions were “about right,” a figure almost identical to the 44% approval rating identified by the Times.  However, our survey shows that those dissatisfied with the Supreme Court are evenly divided between those who believe the Court is “too liberal” (25%) and those who believe it is “too conservative” (25%).

This basic pattern is true among both Latinos and non-Latinos. As Figure 1 shows, a plurality of Americans, Latinos and non-Latinos alike, believe that the Supreme Court is getting its decision-making right in ideological terms while the remainder of the public is about evenly divided between believing the Court is too liberal or too conservative. Though it may look like Latinos are more likely than other Americans to regard the Supreme Court as too conservative, this is because Latinos are more strongly Democratic partisans. Latino Democrats are actually more likely to say the Supreme Court decides cases “about right” (42%) than non-Latino Democrats (37%).

Would you say that the Supreme Court is too liberal, too conservative, or about right in its decisions?


The even ideological division between those who are dissatisfied with the Court for being too liberal versus being too conservative means that we should probably interpret the Supreme Court’s 44% “approval” rating much differently than, say, President Obama’s 46% approval rating in the latest Gallup poll. The set of Americans who “disapprove” of the job President Obama is doing in office undoubtedly includes some strong progressives who do not think the president has been aggressive enough in promoting liberal policies. Yet, the bulk of the President’s critics are conservatives and moderates who think his policies are too liberal or that he is doing a bad job managing the economy. In contrast, those who disapprove of the Court  share no such ideological unity. Whether the next major decision of the Supreme Court is liberal or conservative, there is a well of support for that decision among those who think the Court has not been liberal or conservative enough that the justices can count on to get behind their institution.

Having said that, the Court does stand to lose public standing among Latinos should it act in favor of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, S.B. 1070 in the pending case of Arizona v. United States, a danger it may not face with the pending challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

Americans as a whole are somewhat divided on how the Supreme Court should decide the health care and immigration cases. We asked half of our sample whether they would agree or disagree with a Supreme Court decision upholding “the President’s health care reform law.” We also asked half of our sample whether they would agree or disagree with a decision to uphold “the Arizona immigration law that allows police office to detain anyone they believe to be in the U.S. illegally.”

Nationally, 46% of respondents said they would agree if “the Supreme Court decides to uphold the president’s healthcare reform law,” and 42% said they would disagree. Likewise, our survey finds that 53% of Americans would agree “if the Supreme Court decides to uphold Arizona’s immigration law that allows police officers to detain anyone they believe to be in the U.S. illegally,” while 43% would disagree.

Hispanic attitudes on the health care decision reflect greater political liberalism, but they generally reflect the even divisions present among other Americans (52% of Latinos would agree with it being upheld; 40% would disagree). However, that is not the case on the immigration case. A large majority (71%) of Latinos would disagree with a decision upholding S.B. 1070 (with 62% saying they would “strongly disagree”) while only 26% would agree. While the Supreme Court will ultimately dissatisfy one of two Latino groups of roughly equal size no matter how it decides the healthcare case, a decision to permit enforcement of S.B. 1070 would alienate nearly three out of every four American Hispanics.

The situation facing the Supreme Court among American Latinos is precarious since Hispanics are, on average, much closer to the immigrant experience than other Americans. This means that many Latinos are still developing the kind of symbolic attachments to political institutions that are central features of American political socialization. If many Latinos’ first salient and formative contact with the Supreme Court follows its endorsement of state policies that uniquely burden the Hispanic community, it may undermine the legitimacy and standing of the Supreme Court among the Hispanic community for decades to come. Conversely, a decision against S.B. 1070 might form the basis of a lasting attachment to the Supreme Court among Latinos that might help sustain and extend the legitimacy of the Supreme Court among this important electorate.
Francisco I. Pedraza is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University, and is a Fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Scholars in Health Policy Research Program at the University of Michigan.

Joseph Daniel Ura is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University. His research addresses links between courts and public opinion. His latest article,  “Desperately Seeking Sonia?: Latino Heterogeneity and Geographic Variation in Web Searches for Judge Sonia Sotomayor” (co-authored with Sylvia Manzano) is forthcoming in Political Communication.

The commentary of this article reflects the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions and Pacific Market Research, LLC make no representations about the accuracy of the content of the article.


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