Those findings are a fresh indication that the court’s standing with the public has slipped significantly in the past quarter-century, according to surveys conducted by several polling organizations. Approval was as high as 66 percent in the late 1980s, and by 2000 approached 50 percent.
The decline in the court’s standing may stem in part from Americans’ growing distrust in recent years of major institutions in general and the government in particular. But it also could reflect a sense that the court is more political, after the ideologically divided 5-to-4 decisions in Bush v. Gore, which determined the 2000 presidential election, and Citizens United, the 2010 decision allowing unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions.
“The results of this and other recent polls call into question two pieces of conventional wisdom,” said Lee Epstein, who teaches law and political science at the University of Southern California. One is that the court’s approval rating has been stable over the years, the other is that it has been consistently higher than that of the other branches of government, Professor Epstein said.
On the highest-profile issue now facing the court, the poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans hope that the court overturns some or all of the 2010 health care law when it rules, probably this month. There was scant difference in the court’s approval rating between supporters and opponents of the law.
Either way, though, many Americans do not seem to expect the court to decide the case solely along constitutional lines. Just one in eight Americans said the justices decided cases based only on legal analysis.
“As far as the Supreme Court goes, judgments can’t be impersonal,” Vicki Bartlett, 57, an independent in Bremerton, Wash., said in a follow-up interview. “When you make judgments, it’s always personal. But the best hope is that they will do their job within the legal parameters.”
The public is skeptical about life tenure for the justices, with 60 percent agreeing with the statement that “appointing Supreme Court justices for life is a bad thing because it gives them too much power.” One-third agreed with a contrary statement, that life tenure for justices “is a good thing because it helps keep them independent from political pressures.”
Thirty-six percent of Americans said they disapproved of how the Supreme Court was handling its job, while 20 percent expressed no opinion. Though the court’s approval rating has always been above that of Congress — which is at 15 percent in the latest poll — it has occasionally dipped below that of the president.
A Gallup tracking poll conducted at the same time as the new survey by The Times and CBS News had President Obama’s approval rating at 47 percent, but about as many respondents disapproved of his performance.
The court’s tepid approval ratings crossed ideological lines and policy agendas. Liberals and conservatives both registered about 40 percent approval rates. Forty-three percent of people who hoped the court would strike down the health care law approved of its work, but so did 41 percent of those who favored keeping the law.
The court was also expected to decide this month whether a tough Arizona immigration law conflicts with federal immigration laws and policies. Perhaps the most contested part of the state law is one that often requires the police there to check the immigration status of people they stop or arrest.
As a general matter, more than 6 in 10 Americans said both the federal and state governments should play a role in addressing illegal immigration. A quarter said the federal government should have sole responsibility, and 11 percent said only state governments should address the matter.
One-third of Americans said the part of the Arizona law allowing the police to question people about their immigration status “goes too far,” and half said it was “about right.” Coverage of Supreme Court arguments in the case in April did not seem to affect public attitudes on the question, which have not changed since 2010.
Adam Liptak reported from Washington, and Allison Kopicki from New York. Marina Stefan and Dalia Sussman contributed reporting from New York.