Why some Supreme Court justices are supremely unpopular
Four reasons justices become lightning rods for public opinion
Most people who pay attention to approval ratings are aware that the Supreme Court’s ratings plummeted to unprecedented lows even before the landmark decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Unlike presidents, however, on whom pollsters have been collecting popularity figures since the Truman era, individual Supreme Court justices, who never face the electorate, have been spared such ratings of their favorability—until recently.
Traditionally, Americans have tended to pay little attention to specific members of the nation’s highest tribunal. One poll from the 1990s found that more Americans could name Hollywood’s “Three Stooges” than could cite even one member of the Supreme Court. At the same time, the most recognized justice was its first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor; yet less than 40 percent of those polled could name her. More Americans could identify the judge who served on TV’s “The People’s Court” than could identify a justice on the Supreme Court.
Perhaps it was better to remain under the radar than to experience Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s rating in a March 2022 Marquette University Law School poll that found him to be the most unpopular of the court’s current members, with only 21 percent viewing him favorably. Undoubtedly, his controversial nomination four years ago—during which he responded angrily to charges of sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse while a teenager, and uttered the unforgettable declaration, “I like beer!”—has not faded from Americans’ memories.
What causes Supreme Court justices to become lightning rods for public opinion, whether displayed in polls or other forms of expressed displeasure with their job performance?