Policy, Politics, and Public Attitudes Toward the Supreme Court

Published date01 May 2020
Date01 May 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(3) 365 –376
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X18765189
The Supreme Court of the United States stands apart from
the other pillars of the American government—Congress and
the President. The Court is not popularly elected. It cannot
initiate legislation or execute laws; it can only overturn the
decisions of the Congress and President or add its own inter-
pretation to the law where legislation is ambiguous. Despite
these institutional differences, does public approval of the
Court seem to work in the same ways as approval of the other
A variety of theories have been forwarded to explain the
basis for public attitudes toward the Court. One line of think-
ing is doctrinal: The public wants the Court to interpret the
Constitution a certain way, such as following strictly original
meanings, regardless of the actual policy produced (Greene,
Ansolabehere, & Persily, 2011). A second line of thinking is
functional and behavioral: People want judges to assume a
certain role or function in society, and so long as they main-
tain that function or role, people will approve of the Court. A
special case of this is the notion that the Supreme Court
maintains the Separation of Powers, and other important fea-
tures of judicial behavior include judges’ independence, hon-
esty, values, and adherence to ideas of procedural justice
(Baird, 2001; Gibson, Caldeira, Spence, 2003). A third
important line of thinking, sometimes termed attitudinal or
policy models, holds that agreement with decisions of the
court drive approval. People want government to produce a
certain policy result and the extent to which they agree with
the Court’s decisions drives support for the institution.
Agreement may be based on a number of factors, such as
party or ideology or self-interest, but, whatever the basis, so
long as the judiciary makes decisions in line with their own
policy preferences, people will approve of the Court and its
decisions (Bartels & Johnston, 2013; Friedman, 2009;
McGuire & Stimson, 2004; Mondak & Smithey, 1997).
Policy agreement models are of particular significance in
contemporary scholarship concerning judicial politics, espe-
cially the politics of the Supreme Court. The present study
focuses particularly on the third sort of model and assesses
the extent to which the public takes into account specific
Court decisions in assessing the Court’s performance and the
institution as a whole.
The idea that people’s agreement with court decisions could
shape their opinions of the court mirrors findings on
Congressional and Presidential approval. When people disagree
with the policy decisions made by Congress or the President,
they express lower levels of support for those institutions over-
all (Jones & McDermott, 2009) and even vote against represen-
tatives with whom they are in disagreement (Ansolabehere &
Jones, 2010). We explore whether attitudes toward the Supreme
Court reflect the same political considerations, even though it is
not an elected body. Following the literature on Congress and
the Presidency, we focus on the short-term measurement of
approval of the Supreme Court, not global measures such as
legitimacy. Legitimacy and approval are measured differently in
the literature. We are focused on immediate approval of the
Court and, thus, examine the most commonly used measure of
765189APRXXX10.1177/1532673X18765189American Politics ResearchAnsolabehere et al.
1Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
2Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ariel White, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Building E53-461, Cambridge, MA
02139-4307, USA.
Email: arwhi@mit.edu
Policy, Politics, and Public Attitudes
Toward the Supreme Court
Stephen D. Ansolabehere1, and Ariel White2
We assess the importance of the public’s policy agreement with the Supreme Court on public approval of the court. Using
survey data on a range of recent court cases, we measure respondents’ perceived ideological closeness to the court. Then,
we test various theories of court approval (doctrinal, functional, attitudinal). People who believe the court has decided
recent cases as they themselves would have done, or that judges share their partisanship, report higher court approval than
those who perceive the court as ideologically distant from them. We compare these findings with similar effects of policy
agreement on Congressional and Presidential approval.
Supreme Court, public opinion, partisanship, issue agreement

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