The FINANCIAL -- As the eight-person Supreme Court prepares to reconvene next Monday for its fall term, Americans' views of the court remain highly partisan. Slightly more than one in four Republicans (26%) approve of the how the court is handling its job, compared with 42% of independents and 67% of Democrats.
These results are from Gallup's Sept. 7-11 Governance poll. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election, it could result in a left-leaning justice filling the vacant seat left by the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, giving the liberal wing majority control of the court.
The current 41-percentage-point gap between Democrats and Republicans is not as large as the gap Gallup found in July 2015 -- after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage and rejected a challenge to the Affordable Care Act -- when 76% of Democrats and 18% of Republicans approved. A year before that, in a July 2014 survey, there was no party difference in approval of the court. From 2000 to 2014, partisans' views varied, influenced partly by the party of the president, but also by the direction of some of the court's decisions, according to Gallup.
Supreme Court Job Approval Remains Below 50%
Overall, 45% of Americans now approve of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job, up slightly from 42% in mid-July, but generally in line with the range of approval ratings since 2011.
With a few exceptions, Americans' approval of the Supreme Court was significantly higher in the years before 2011, including the all-time highs of 62% in 2000 and 2001. Approval was at its lowest (42%) this past summer and in 2005. This summer, the court ruled that colleges and universities can continue to use race as a factor in their admissions decisions, a ruling that just over one-quarter of Americans supported. Meanwhile, the court deadlocked 4-4 on President Barack Obama's immigration plan. This decision essentially left in place a lower court's decision that blocked the president's immigration plan, which would have prevented up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from being deported.
"Too Liberal" Perceptions of Court Constant at 37%
Americans continue to have mixed feelings about the court's ideological bent. Currently, 37% of Americans think the court is "too liberal," while about as many (39%) say the court's ideology is "about right" and 20% say it is too conservative. These views are essentially the same as they were last year, which marked a seven-point increase from 2014 in the percentage believing the court was too liberal. That shift likely came in response to the court's 2015 landmark rulings that legalized same-sex marriage and upheld the Affordable Care Act. In the two decades prior to that, the percentage of Americans who thought the court was too liberal was consistently less than one-third. Thirty-two percent gave the "too liberal" response in 2010, soon after two new liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, replaced fellow liberals David Souter and John Paul Stevens, respectively.
Almost the same percentage of Republicans say the court is too liberal (67%) as disapprove of the court's handling of its job (66%). That is in sharp contrast to Democrats, of whom 17% say it's too liberal.
Since the conservative Scalia died, the empty ninth seat has been part of the backdrop of this year's presidential election. The winner of the election will affect the court's balance of power. This reality and liberal victories in several major decisions handed down by the court in recent years, such as legalized same-sex marriage and the upholding of constitutional protection for abortion rights, help explain Americans' politically polarized views when asked to rate the court. This polarization could become even more pronounced if a liberal justice replaces Scalia, swinging the court's balance of power to the left on the political spectrum. On the other hand, as long as Justice Anthony Kennedy remains on the court as a swing vote, a conservative or moderate appointment might keep the status quo.