●An Annenberg Public Policy Center survey showing two-thirds of people trust the court to operate in the best interests of the public, and 70 percent think the court has the right amount of power.
●A massive survey from Marquette Law School finding that a majority of Americans have more confidence in the Supreme Court than other parts of the federal government and that few believe the justices take extremely liberal or extremely conservative positions.
The findings suggest “a fairly deep reservoir of support for the court,” said Lawrence Baum, a political science professor at Ohio State University who specializes in the Supreme Court and who took part in a seminar on the Marquette poll this week. “The justices should feel fairly secure.”
Charles Franklin, a professor who conducted the Marquette poll, said that the public’s knowledge of the court is limited and that a nation of non-lawyers is little concerned about the court’s jurisprudence or method of constitutional interpretation.
“But a republic needs citizens who are satisfied,” Franklin said. “They are not caught up in how you got to the outcome, but rather what the outcome is.”
In the Marquette poll, 37 percent of the public expressed strong confidence in the court, with 43 percent saying they had “some” confidence. And the more involved the respondent said they were in civic affairs, the better the court did. Among those who pay close attention to politics, 82 percent had medium or high confidence in the court.
There was no contest when Franklin asked which of the three branches respondents trusted the most. It was 57 percent for the court, 22 percent for Congress, 21 percent for the executive branch.
Franklin acknowledged that the court benefited from the public’s low opinion of the political branches.
The poll showed that the public tends to see the court as a collective, rather than individuals.
Many in the Marquette poll said they didn’t know enough about seven of the nine justices to be able to rate their performances. Included in that group was Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.; two-thirds were not familiar enough with him to say whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion.
The two who were better-known were rated differently. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, about whom a documentary and feature film were released last year, was viewed favorably by 41 percent of the respondents, and unfavorably by 17 percent.
The bitter clash over the newest justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh, seemed fresh enough to capture the public’s attention. He was viewed unfavorably by 32 percent of the public, while 26 percent had a favorable opinion.
Some see other trouble ahead for the court. All of the polls show a partisan difference. Usually, those who belong to the party that currently controls the White House have a more favorable view of the court as well. In the Marquette poll, 54 percent who identified as Republicans had high confidence in the court, compared with 34 percent of Democrats.
In some of the polls, respondents said that the justices did not put aside their personal views in making decisions and that the court was too mixed up in politics.
And there is a receptiveness to various proposals to change the court that surprised some.
One proposal would end life tenure for justices and have them serve fixed terms. That is unlikely to happen — most scholars believe it would require a hard-to-achieve constitutional amendment. But in the Marquette poll, 72 percent of respondents said they would favor such a change.
More surprising to Tara Leigh Grove, a William & Mary law professor who has written about the court’s perceived legitimacy, was the amount of support for increasing the number of justices. Some liberals and Democrats have said such an approach might be the only way to blunt the court’s increasing conservatism.
The respondents in the Marquette poll opposed “court-packing” by a 57 percent to 42 percent margin. But Democrats were evenly split on the idea, and even that 40 percent support was startling to Grover.
“I can’t emphasize enough what a sea change that is,” she said. The term court-packing “used to be an epithet.”
It is also worth remembering that the polls were taken after a somewhat bland Supreme Court term, when the court seemed to avoid controversy after the bitterly partisan Kavanaugh confirmation last October.
The public’s attention to the court is “episodic,” Franklin said. It pays attention to the outcomes of big cases, which all seem to come in a rush at the end of the term in summer.
This term, the court faces one of its most politically volatile dockets in years — there are cases involving abortion, gun rights, legal protections for LGBTQ workers and immigration.
Some of the congressional and prosecutorial investigations of President Trump are likely to end up before the court.
And the two-thirds of Americans who don’t know enough about the chief justice may get to know him better — as the person presiding over an impeachment trial in the Senate.