In June 2012, the New York Times prominently reported that three-quarters of Americans believe that U.S. Supreme Court decisions sometimes are influenced by the Justices’ personal or political views, while only 13% view their rulings as based solely on legal analysis without regard to such views. At one level, this should be unsurprising, a “dog bites man” story. Who sits on the Supreme Court—each Justice’s personal as well as legal views—of course affects the Court’s rulings. The Times, however, paired this poll result with the finding that the Court’s approval rating had fallen to 44%, from 66% in the 1980s, thereby suggesting that the Court’s reputation may have fallen because the public perceived those influences as improper. It singled out the Court’s five-to-four decisions in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, as well as the debate over the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which the Court had not yet decided at the time of the poll.
The Court’s reputation may well have diminished because of the perception of improper influences, for example in the Court’s willingness in Bush v. Gore in effect to resolve a presidential election along ideological lines and contrary to widespread expectations that the Court would decline to play that role. Another likely factor behind the fall is the public’s substantive disagreement with the Court’s rulings and the values they reflect, which seems especially likely in the case of the extraordinarily unpopular Citizens United decision.