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Supreme Court is More Conservative Than Public, Study Shows

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Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court Building. Joe Ravi / CC-BY-SA 3.0

AUSTIN, Texas The gap in ideology between the U.S. Supreme Court and the public has grown since 2020, with the court moving to a position that is more conservative than an estimated 75% of the American public. That is the finding from a decadelong study co-authored by a researcher at The University of Texas at Austin.

“We show that after conservatives achieved a 6-3 majority in late 2020, the court is ideologically closer to the conservative Republican voter,” said co-author Stephen Jessee, associate professor of government. “That is to the ideological right of roughly three-quarters of all Americans.”

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 The findings show that although the Supreme Court is now more conservative than the average American, the public still views it as somewhat moderate, something that was still true as recently as 2020 but is no longer the case today. As a result, the researchers said support for proposed changes to the court’s structure (for example, an increase in the number of justices) is weaker than it might be if people knew how conservative the court has become. According to the surveys, Democrats are particularly likely to view the court as more liberal than it actually is.

The results are derived from three surveys conducted during the past 10 years that ask respondents their opinions on the policy questions before the court. The researchers compared respondents’ own views on important issues, their expectations about how the court will rule, and the court’s eventual rulings.

In the first two surveys, conducted in 2010 and 2020, the court’s position on key policy issues was relatively moderate, falling close to the preferences of the average American. But in 2021, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and her replacement on the court by Amy Coney Barrett, the court’s rulings moved to the right.

The analysis also found that the public’s perception of the court’s politics can fall in and out of synch with the reality over time. In 2010, for instance, both Democrats and Republicans expected the court to be more liberal than it actually was. In 2020, by contrast, Republicans expected the court to be much more conservative than it was, while Democrats perceived the court more accurately.

In 2021, after conservatives achieved a 6-3 supermajority, the third survey showed that Democrats did not update their perceptions of the court to account for the impact of that shift, perceiving the court as less conservative than it proved to be. Republicans, however, also underestimated the court’s shift.

“This may change for both Democrats and Republicans depending on how certain cases are decided in the future,” said Maya Sen, professor of public policy at Harvard University and co-author of the study. “People are more supportive of changes to the court’s structure when they perceive it as being more ideologically distant from them.”

Respondents to the 2021 survey were asked about two potential changes to the court’s structure: term limits for justices and expansion of the number of justices. On both measures there was a partisan divide: 67% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans supported term limits; 51% of Democrats supported expanding the court, while only 16% of Republicans did. These partisan divides may increase further, the researchers said, if the public grows more accurate in its assessment of the court’s ideology.

Neil Malhotra of Stanford Graduate School of Business is also a co-author of the study. Full research article available at: https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2120284119