Public Opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court: Understanding Attitudes About the Affordable Care Act Ruling
Mayer, Andrea L.
Reed, Douglas S
Ideological and partisan preferences often spill over to public opinion about the legitimacy and role of the U.S. Supreme Court. However, prior research has found that the public holds a range of opinions about judicial decision-making approaches and the Court as an institution that are distinct from agreement with specific rulings or broader ideological preferences. As scholars have explored hypotheses about the nature and durability of public opinion about the Court, a number of debates have emerged, but these debates have rarely been examined through panel data. Using panel data gathered directly before and after the Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, I examine four of these debates within the context of this ruling: (1) the extent to which approval of judicial decision-making approaches was conditioned on agreement with the ruling, (2) whether public attention to this case served to increase the public’s knowledge of the Court, (3) whether, consistent with the theory of “positivity bias,” increased knowledge of the case led to higher approval of the Court, and (4) the degree to which any of these factors influenced individual assessments about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act when compared with partisan preferences. I find that public support for judicial decision-making approaches exhibited variability over time, and was influenced in particular by disagreement with the Court’s ruling. I also find that the ruling appeared to increase the public’s knowledge of the Court, but contrary to prior research, increased knowledge was linked to higher approval of some functions of the Court but not others. Finally, I find that public attitudes about judicial decision-making, knowledge of the Court, and approval of the Court appeared to play little or no role in an individual’s agreement with the ruling when compared with partisan influences. Thus, while my findings generally support the theory that public approval of the Court does necessarily mirror public approval of specific rulings, I find variability within public opinion of the Court that rebuts certain findings and assumptions posited by prior research.
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