The Supreme Court is the single branch of the federal government that ought to be immune to the sway of public opinion. There are no elections, term limits, or incentives for members to advance agendas. Although members are appointed by politicians, and almost always by those of the same ideology, the Supreme Court is intended to rise above the petty tides of politics.
Historically, the Supreme Court as a body has enjoyed consistently positive approval ratings. With no political party officially designated as in control, the court is able to command a sense of legitimacy that often eludes members of other branches of government in such a polarized national dynamic.
Yet over the past year, the court's approval rating has fallen from its previously dependable loft. Gallup reports that today only 43% of Americans hold a favorable view of the Supreme Court, the court's lowest rate since 2005, and six points lower than September of last year. Furthermore, 46% of Americans currently hold an unfavorable view of the Supreme Court, marking only the second time since Gallup began running this poll that the disapproval rating is higher than the approval rating.
And the reason that the Supreme Court is not enjoying the immunity to political distaste that it often has is because it has been increasingly politicized in our culture, especially over the past few years.
National attention, fueled tirelessly by the media, was focused on the Supreme Court last summer when many Republicans and their sympathizers expected a decision that would nullify the Affordable Care Act, or at least severely weaken it. Because the court has a technically conservative leaning — five out of nine of the justices were appointed by Republican presidents — many of the healthcare law's adversaries anticipated a favorable outcome.
Following the decision, there was a sharp decline in Republican approval of the court, as well as Republican approval of Chief Justice John Roberts who was ultimately the deciding vote in the case. Chief Justice Roberts boasted a 67% approval rating among Republicans, which, after the Affordable Care Act decision, fell to 33%.
Democrats currently hold a 58% approval of the courts in light of such decisions as the Affordable Care Act affirmation and the recent DOMA ruling. Yet Democrats, too, in recent years have been prone to fluctuating view of the court —2000-2001 was a bad year for Democrats’' perception of the Supreme Court when it confirmed George W. Bush as president.
It is not wrong for the court to make unpopular decisions that many, even most, in the nation disagree with; the constitution is structured to allow that to happen. The Supreme Court functions in a singular position in our nation and politics unavoidably tangles with cases brought before the court. America depends on the Supreme Court to make earnest decisions. Supreme Court Justices should be concerned with one thing: the Constitution of the United States, and allow public perception to shape politics, not the rule of law.