A majority of Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s handling of appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and doubt he would pick the “right kind of person” to fill the next opening on the high court, according to a new and wide-ranging national survey about the court by the Marquette University Law School.
But if a vacancy occurs during the 2020 election year and Trump nominates someone to fill it, the public overwhelmingly believes the Senate should hold confirmation hearings.
In fact, a lopsided majority (73%) said it was “the wrong thing to do” when Senate Republicans refused during the 2016 election to fill a court vacancy in the final year of Democrat Barack Obama’s presidency.
The national survey released Monday offers a sweeping snapshot of public perceptions of the court, its individual justices, its role, major rulings it has handed down and issues it could soon decide.
By a large margin, Americans trust the Supreme Court more than either of the other two branches of government (Congress and the presidency), according to the nationwide poll of 1,423 adults taken Sept. 3 to 13.
And most oppose the idea of adding seats on the court, an idea embraced by some on the left who feel Republicans have bent the rules to maintain a conservative majority on the court.
But one idea for reforming the court that does have broad approval (72%) is having justices serve fixed terms instead of lifetime appointments, an idea that is strongly favored by Republicans, Democrats and independents alike in the survey.
Compared to the other branches, the high court is well regarded: 80% of those surveyed have at least some confidence in the institution and almost 40% have a lot of confidence. The court rates much higher than Congress and the presidency in this regard. In fact, 57% said they trust the Supreme Court the most of the three branches, compared to 21% who chose the presidency and 22% who chose Congress.
The court is not perceived as highly partisan or extreme. Notably, its chief justice, John Roberts, is the least polarizing member of the court when it comes to the difference between how Democrats and Republicans view individual justices; Brett Kavanaugh, appointed by Republican Trump, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by Democrat Bill Clinton, are the most polarizing along partisan lines.
About half of those surveyed perceive the court as moderate. Almost 40% perceive it as conservative and a bit over 10% perceive it as liberal. But only 1 in 10 perceive it as “extremely” conservative or “extremely” liberal. Most think the court follows “mainly the law” rather than “mainly politics” in reaching its decisions.
The poll also found that, while Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided over key rulings the court has handed down, these partisan differences don’t extend to the public’s view of all cases.
For example, of seven major rulings the survey asked about, the most popular was one that is widely embraced by conservatives: the finding in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms. It was viewed favorably by two-thirds of those polled.
But the next most popular ruling (viewed favorably by 56%) was one embraced more widely on the left than the right: the ruling establishing a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.
In the same vein, the court’s most unpopular decisions include some decried by liberals (the “Citizens United” ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose political candidates) and some decried by conservatives (allowing race to be considered in college admissions).
Looking ahead to issues that are now before the court, the poll found:
- About 6 in 10 adults were opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal in all 50 states. The court agreed this month to hear a key Louisiana abortion case and others appear headed its way.
- Almost the same number support a decision that would extend protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sex to sexual orientation, as well. The court has three cases before it that will test whether gay and transgender people are covered by existing employment protections.
- A little over half support making it constitutional to use public funds for religious school students.
- A little over half think a ban on semi-automatic weapons would not violate the Constitution (even though support for the right to bear arms is broad).
- A little over half (52%) would oppose the court striking down Obamacare, with 37% favoring such as ruling.
- More than half (53%) would oppose a decision that allows the administration to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that permits young people brought to the United States illegally to avoid deportation.
In addition to being the least polarizing branch of the government, the court is also the least well-known.
While almost 6 in 10 Americans could offer an opinion of Kavanaugh and Ginsburg, only 16% could offer one about the court’s most anonymous justice, Stephen Breyer.
About half of those polled knew enough to rate at least three members of the court. Only about a third knew enough to rate a majority of the court’s nine members.
Roberts ranked right in the middle, at fifth, in name recognition, after Ginsburg, Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor. Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Roberts had the most positive ratings, while Kavanaugh – who was at the center of a divisive confirmation fight last year – was the only justice who was viewed negatively by more people than viewed him positively.
Asked about Trump’s handling of court appointments, 43% approved and 57% disapproved. That was lower than his approval rating on the economy among all adults (48%) and slightly higher than his rating on handling immigration (42%).
Asked how much confidence they have that Trump will select the right kind of person if there is another opening on the court, 45% said at least “some” confidence while 55% said very little or none at all.
There were big gaps between Democrats and Republicans over Trump’s handling of the court, not surprisingly, as there were over broader questions about the court’s decision-making. Most Republicans think the court should base its rulings on the original meaning of the Constitution rather than viewing it as a document whose meaning has evolved over time. Democrats follow the opposite pattern, and the partisan gap is huge on this question. Most Democrats think it’s more important that a decision lead to a fair outcome rather than that it “follows the law even if seemingly unfair.” Republicans are the opposite.
There are huge partisan differences among U.S. adults over revisiting Roe v. Wade, over how the court should handle Obamacare and over whether the court should decide that a business owner’s free speech rights or religious beliefs can justify refusing service to gay customers.
But Democrats and Republicans are closer to agreement over key aspects of the confirmation process that has spurred so many bitter partisan fights in Washington.
Majorities of Republicans, independents and Democrats all say it was “the wrong thing to do” when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, refused to take up Democrat Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland during the 2016 election year – including 59% of Republicans, 70% of independents and 87% of Democrats.
Likewise, Americans of all political stripes think that the Senate should hold confirmation hearings if there is an opening in the 2020 election year and Trump nominates someone to fill it – including 75% of Republicans, 76% of independents and 62% of Democrats. Questions about the health of the 86-year-old Ginsburg, one of the court’s four more liberal justices, have fueled speculation about that scenario.
Four out of 5 adults said that if a nominee to the court is “qualified and has no ethical problems,” then senators are not justified in opposing confirmation just because those senators are from a different political party.
And majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents all say it’s not justified for senators to oppose a qualified nominee with no ethical problems simply because of how they think that member of the court would decide cases.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Poll: Most Americans give Trump low marks on Supreme Court picks