‘Politicians in robes’: How a sharp right turn imperiled trust in the Supreme Court

The Court’s shift, capped by the 2022 Dobbs ruling, polarized views of and levels of trust in the Supreme Court along partisan lines for the first time in decades.

For decades, the U.S. Supreme Court was viewed as one of the few American institutions respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. It was seen as a legal institution, not a political one, strengthened by its “norms, processes, symbols, and independence”—and was granted greater public trust and legitimacy than most other institutions.

A graph titled Trust in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Image: Courtesy of Annenberg Public Policy Center

But that privileged status is no more. New research led by the Annenberg Public Policy Center finds that the court’s “special status has evaporated” and that the court’s dramatic shift to the right, capped by the 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, has upended that favored relationship and polarized the public’s view of the court along partisan lines for the first time in decades.

These findings are in the article “Has the Supreme Court become just another political branch? Public perceptions of court approval and legitimacy in a post-Dobbs world,” published in Science Advances. In its June 24, 2022, Dobbs ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the popular, half-century-old Roe v. Wade decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

“The most important takeaway is that pre-2022, pre-Dobbs, there is no real evidence of political polarization in the public’s views of the Supreme Court,” said lead author Matthew Levendusky, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts & Sciences and the Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC).

“We have data from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Constitution Day surveys going back to 2006,” Levendusky says, “and on occasion we see trust and approval bounce around a bit between Democrats and Republicans. But starting in 2022, we see very clear views of partisan polarization of the court so that post-Dobbs, those who support abortion access or are Democrats think much less of the court, while people who are Republican or disapprove of abortion think highly of the court.”

From 2005-2019, large majorities of Americans across the political spectrum either had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the Supreme Court, according to APPC surveys. From 2019 to 2022, however, confidence in the Supreme Court plunged 22 percentage points, from 68% to 46%, a finding mirrored in data from other survey firms, including Gallup and Pew.

Read more at Annenberg Public Policy Center.