This year the political climate harnesses enough blame and judgment for everyone. Government officials on and off the November ballot share the burden of low job approval ratings. According to Gallup, only 51% of Americans approve of the manner in which the United States Supreme Court does its job. Though this number, at first glance, seems a fair characterization of America’s collective sentiment for its highest court, that figure is down ten percentage points from the 61% approval rating the Court garnered in 2009, a near-decade high.
Although the 2010 percentage is low compared to the previous year, the approval ratings for 2007 and 2008 are near the current rate. Could it be that President Obama’s declining approval ratings over the past year have resulted in guilt by association for the Supreme Court? Instead, is it possible that the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision to reverse a position it took in 2003 to uphold government restrictions on political expenditures by corporations has been perceived negatively in the public eye?
The Supreme Court had great public approval ratings in 2009, perhaps, in part, evidenced by the outpouring of support it received for then-appointee Justice Sonya Sotomayor. At the time, fervent support for a Latino woman to be appointed to the Court seemed to generate positive feelings about its general performance. During President Obama’s 2010 appointment of now Justice Elana Kagan, however, the Court’s job approval numbers declined, even in spite of overwhelming support by the Democratic base.
The President’s first Supreme Court appointment was a sign of transition from the previous Republican era to a new Democratic administration. Further, America was engaged through wide media coverage of both of the President’s Supreme Court nominations.
Sotomayor marked the first appointment of a Latino to the nation’s highest court. And as Democratic excitement fueled President Obama’s nomination, the Court’s approval ratings remained high, according to Gallup, which polled American approval ratings at 53% satisfied versus 33% dissatisfied.
So what’s changed? President Obama has now made two lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, and yet, the Democratic leaning presence has yet to politically balance the bench. Ironically though, the view of most people polled by Gallup is that the bench has become more liberal. Thus, the Court’s overall approval ratings have declined. It’s also interesting to note that as President Obama’s approval ratings declined throughout 2010, so too did overall satisfaction with the job performance of the Supreme Court.
In the 2010-2011 Supreme Court Session, the cases coming before the justices involve emotion driven topics: undocumented immigrant rights, information privacy, and free speech, all issues that are sure to engage the American electorate.
Back in 2009, the Court’s approval ratings were bolstered by an energized Democratic base consisting primarily of African Americans, Latinos and young people. Now, given a marked shift toward more conservative ideology in the wake of continued economic recession and unemployment, it seems that satisfaction with the Supreme Court is based less on actual job performance than it is on the perception that the Court has become too liberal under Obama’s watch.