Court Battles

Solid majority believes Supreme Court rulings based more on politics than law 

Greg Nash

A broad majority of Americans — more than 6 in 10 — believes the Supreme Court bases its decisions more on the justices’ political views than on the Constitution and law, a national survey released Wednesday shows. 

The new data, which came from the polling firm Selzer, appeared to reflect a growing disappointment with the 6-3 conservative majority court ahead of a potentially blockbuster term and at a critical juncture for the court’s public perception.

“This is the moment John Roberts has been trying to avoid,” said Grinnell College political scientist Peter Hanson, who helped direct the poll. “He’s worked very hard trying to protect the courts as an apolitical institution, and that’s failed.”  

The poll revealed that broad majorities would also prefer that the justices be limited to 15-year terms instead of holding lifetime appointments on the bench.

Somewhat surprisingly, majorities among those who cast ballots in 2020 for President Biden and for former President Trump both saw the court as politicized and favored term limits, though in varying degrees. 

Among Biden voters, 67 percent said the court’s decisions were based more on the political views of its members than the law, compared to 58 percent of Trump voters. On the question of term limits, 74 percent of Biden voters supported the idea, as did 54 percent of Trump voters.

Independents held somewhat similar views, including 63 percent who said the court reached rulings based more on politics than law and 67 percent who prefer 15-year term limits to lifetime tenure for justices.

Discussion of structural reforms to the Supreme Court, while part of a long-running national debate, reached something of a crescendo in the waning days of the 2020 presidential election as Senate Republicans rushed to confirm Trump’s third high court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, ahead of the November vote. 

The move appalled Democrats and much of the electorate, who saw it as blatantly hypocritical after Senate Republicans four years earlier had refused to grant even a hearing to nominee Merrick Garland, former President Obama’s pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, on the claim that election-year confirmations should be avoided.

Then-candidate Biden largely deflected the issue but pledged on the campaign trail to study various reform proposals, including adding seats to the bench as well as other measures that were considered less extreme, a vow which eventually led to his formation in April of a White House-appointed commission whose work is ongoing.

Calls for court reform grew louder this summer when the justices, operating under emergency procedures, or it’s so-called shadow docket, issued controversial rulings that blocked federal eviction protections amid the coronavirus pandemic and permitted Texas’s divisive six-week abortion ban to take effect.

This month, the court began a new nine-month term that could yield rulings that dramatically alter American life on issues including abortion, religion and gun rights.

Hanson, of Grinnell College, said the poll could augur more damage to the court’s institutional image as its pivotal term gets underway.

“This is a signal that all of those decisions are going to be interpreted through a political lens,” he said.

Reid Wilson contributed to this report.

Tags Abortion Amy Coney Barrett Barack Obama Donald Trump Joe Biden Merrick Garland Supreme Court voting rights

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