Does the Supreme Court think like the average American?

February 24, 2012

By November’s elections, the Supreme Court will have heard challenges toPresident Obama’s health-care overhaul, Arizona’s immigration law and, as announced this past week, the consideration of race in college admissions. If the court preserves “Obamacare” or affirmative action, conservatives will cry judicial activism. If Arizona’s immigration statute survives, liberals will take up the charge, just as they did after the court’s Citizens United campaign finance decision in 2010.

But is judicial activism a problem if, as a recent study found, the high court’s views mirror those of the American public?

“Despite its intentional isolation from popular pressure, the Court’s decisions are not out of line with public preferences,” write Stephen Jessee of the University of Texas and Neil Malhotra of Stanford University in “Ideological Proximity and Support for the Supreme Court,” an unpublished paper. “This contrasts with popular images of judges as rogue activists.”

Of course, there’s no shortage of ideologues on the court. The authors found that Justice Clarence Thomas, for instance, is more conservative than 97 percent of the 1,500people they surveyed, and that Justice Antonin Scalia is more conservative than 89 percent.

Meanwhile, the authors estimate that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has cast relatively few votes, is more liberal than about 85 percent of Americans, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is to the left of 83 percent.

How does such a polarized bench chart a middle course? The justices cancel one another out.

“Many of the Court’s individual justices have staked out positions that are near the extremes of the distribution of ideology in the public,” the authors explain. But “the Supreme Court as a whole appears quite representative of the ideological center.”

However, the study also found that America’s political center doesn’t approve of the court — an unelected body with limited responsibilities to the executive and legislative branches or, for that matter, to voters.

“Extremists on both ends of the distribution exhibit more institutional support for the Court than those in the center,” according to the paper.

Justin Moyer

moyerj@washpost.com

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Justin Moyer is deputy editor of the Morning Mix.
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