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Dwindling Supreme Court approval ratings to depend on election

Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 09:11


A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in June found that only 44 percent of Americans approved of the Supreme Court and how it has handled recent decisions, a drastic drop from the Court’s high-water-mark of 66 percent approval in the late 1980s

Regardless of whether Americans approve of the Court’s decisions, this election cycle has affirmed just how significant an impact the Supreme Court can have on the lives of Americans. Perhaps the most influential recent decision in terms of the election was the nearly-2010 ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case, which prohibited the restriction of campaign contributions from corporations and super political action committees (PACs).

The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a non-profit, nonpartisan research group, studies the effects of money and lobbying on American politics. According to research conducted by the CRP, super PACs have spent over $600 million this election cycle.

Professor of Political Science Kent Portney said that the changes created by the Citizens United decision reflect the Court’s important role.

“Americans have come to see the Supreme Court as an instrument for social change,” Portney said. This change, he argued, has shifted over time in its ideological slant.

“When I was [in college] the social change was liberal. It was focused on equal protection and equal rights issues,” he said. “In recent times that social change has been more conservative.”

Given the impact that the Court can have, it is important to reflect on how the president-elect will shape it.

“The question is how the Supreme Court [might] change in the next four years and in what direction might it change,” Portney said.

One change will likely be the retirement of one or more justices from the court. Four sitting justices are septuagenarians, with 79-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the oldest. 

“She hasn’t been in very good health,” Portney said.

The Court’s other relative-elders are liberal Stephen Breyer, conservative Antonin Scalia and occasional “swing vote” Anthony Kennedy. Given the Court’s current conservative majority, any retirement could drastically alter its make up. Vacancies are filled by presidential appointment and Senate confirmation, giving President Barack Obama the potential to significantly alter the Court’s structure in the next four years.

During Obama’s first four years in office, he appointed two justices to the highest court: Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Both women are among the Court’s liberal minority and indicate how he will treat future vacancies.

Obama’s potential appointments this term will be critical in how the Court handles future decisions, according to Portney. The most pivotal will be the Court’s handling of potential abortion cases and whether it upholds Roe v. Wade, he added.

“It’s safe to say that there are four people who are on the Court right now who would be perfectly willing, if not eager, to find a way to overturn Roe v. Wade,” he said.

He argued that the vacancy created by Ginsburg, who is pro-choice, would not alter the make-up of the court based on Obama’s decision.

“It’s a pretty safe bet that he’d choose somebody who’s pro-choice,” Portney said.

The liberal slant that Obama’s court would take could increase the already common complaints of court activism. Portney argued that too much hype is given to the debates between court activism versus strict constructionism, which is the belief in restricting the court to the views of the Constitution and its founders.

“Conservatives are willing to dispense with the idea of being non-activist when it serves their ideological purposes to be more active,” he said.

In any case, Portney said the next four years are likely to bring landmark decisions on not only abortion rights, but also issues like corporate influence and same-sex marriage. Still, he noted that it is difficult to determine exactly how these decisions will fall.

“It’s hard to predict what kinds of cases are going to come to the Court and how it might deal with those kinds of issues,” Portney said.

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