The American Public's Assessment of the Rehnquist Court

Article excerpt

The apparent drop in public support for the Supreme Court during Chief Justice Rehnquist's tenure may be nothing more than the general demonization of government over the last 25 years.

How did the public view the Supreme Court during the period of the late William Rehnquist's service as chief justice? We know that there have been at least some ups and downs. A 2001 article in Judicature reported evidence that the election-determining decisions in late 2000 differentially affected public confidence in the Court depending on whether the respondent was a self-identified Democrat, Republican, or Independent, although within six months the impact of Bush v. Gore already showed signs of dissipating.1

Now that the Rehnquist era has ended, it is worth asking the broader question of how the public's view of the Court varied over the entire period that Rehnquist occupied the Court's center chair. First, is there any broad pattern of increase or decrease in support for the Court, either generally or within partisan subgroups? One might hypothesize that as the Court moved increasingly toward the right, if that is actually the case, Democrats lost confidence in the Court over time while Republicans increased in confidence. Second, are there any other moments that produced sharp shifts in support for the Court similar to what we observed in the wake of Bush v. Gore? For example, did the reaffirmation of the right to abortion in Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey have any measurable impact on the public's view of the Court?


To examine these questions, one needs time series data in which the same question has been asked of the public repeatedly over time. I identified five such series:

* Gallup Poll ("Gallup"): "I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Would you tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one - a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little ... The U.S. Supreme Court?" (31 replications from 1973 through 2005; 21 during the Rehnquist Court).

* General Social Survey ("GSS"): "I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them? ... U.S. Supreme Court" (23 replications from 1973 through 2004; 12 during the Rehnquist Court).

* National Election Studies ("NES"): "I"d like to get your feelings toward some of our political leaders and other people who are in the news these days. I'll read the name of a person and I'd like you to rate that person using something we call the feeling thermometer. Ratings between 50 degrees and 100 degrees mean that you feel favorable and warm toward the person. Ratings between 0 degrees and 50 degrees mean that you don't feel favorable toward the person and that you don't care too much for that person. You would rate the person at the 50 degree mark if you don't feel particularly warm or cold toward the person.... Still using the thermometer, how would you rate the Supreme Court?" (7 replications from 1980 through 2004 during the Rehnquist Court).

* Pew Research Center for the People & the Press [and others] ("Pew"): "Now I'd like your opinion of some groups and organizations in the news... Would you say your overall opinion of the Supreme Court is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?" (15 replications from 1985 through 2005; 14 during the Rehnquist Court.)

* Wisconsin Continuous National Telephone Survey ("WISCON"): "On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means very poor and 10 means excellent, how would you rate the job the Supreme Court is doing?" (more or less continuous from June 27, 1988 through May 7, 2002; aggregated into 55 quarterly observations2).

The first two of these are quite similar; the other three differ substantially and may tap somewhat different reactions to the Court. …