There is intense speculation about the potential impact of the Affordable Health Care Act on the US Supreme Court’s standing with the American public. Decades of public opinion polling demonstrates the resiliency of the Court in withstanding case decisions that seriously displease large segments of the public. The Court appears to command the loyalty of the American people because of the manner in which it reaches decisions, not the specific decisions it reaches.
Will history repeat itself in the case of the Health Care Act? There are strong reasons for anticipating that the public’s loyalty to the Supreme Court as an institution will prevail, regardless of the case outcome. The partisan tumult associated with Bush v. Gore seemed at first to challenge such an expectation, yet after that case, overall support for the Court quickly reverted to its traditionally high (relative to other federal government institutions) level. In the short term, disenchanted Democratic-leaning Court supporters were instantly replaced with newly enchanted Republican-leaning Court supporters, leaving overall levels of support unchanged; however, even that effect was short-lived. One month after the decision, over 61 percent of Democrats professed a favorable opinion of the Court and only 29 percent an unfavorable opinion [Pew Research Center]. Support for the Court once again became equally prevalent among Democrats and Republicans alike.
Today’s Supreme Court justices may have reason for concern that history will not repeat itself and that their decision in the Health Care Act case could reduce diffuse support their institution receives from Democrats (and less certainly from Republicans, who already view the Court as too liberal, if the decision goes in the other direction). “Diffuse support” is a reservoir of good will on which the Court can draw, as opposed to the temporary “specific support” that it might receive based on agreement with a particular decisions. In procedural fairness terms, diffuse support comes from public perceptions that decisions are being made according to principles of respect, neutrality, participation, and trustworthiness. Things may have changed since 2000. The Court is increasingly being seen in partisan terms. A Washington Post-ABC News survey last Sunday asked a random sample of adults, “Do you think the Supreme Court justices will rule on this case mainly on the basis of the law or mainly on the basis of their partisan political views. Forty percent answered “on the basis of the law” and 50 percent based on “partisan political views,” with another 10 percent undecided. Those responses come at a time in which support for the US Supreme Court has been declining, most likely a manifestation of a general decline of trust in government across the board. The past may therefore be a less certain guide to the consequences of a decision viewed unfavorably by a substantial segment of the public, especially if Democrats see the decision as part of a series of specific disappointments with the Court. Support for the Court cannot in the long-run rest on new supporters from one party replacing former supporters from the other.
We have no way of predicting whether successive disappointments with specific Court decisions will lead to a decline in its diffuse support among a segment of the population. The historic relationship between the Court and African-Americans suggests, however, that groups who are dependable supporters can become persistent critics. Over time, the high level of support the Court enjoyed from the African-American community during the period of the Warren Court was replaced by atypically low levels of diffuse support. While African-Americans who grew up during the Warren Court era retained their loyalty, subsequent cohorts never developed a similar level of diffuse support. Bush v Gore also teaches us that one effect of the Health Care Act will be to at least modestly increase public knowledge about how the Supreme Court operates. People will talk about and think about the manner in which the Court is making its decision. This is both an opportunity and a risk to the justices. If what people learn and come to believe from news reinforces the belief that the Court follows a procedurally fair process, diffuse support for the institution will be enhanced. As Judges Burke and Leben noted in previous posts to this blog, the Court is taking some steps to expose its process to unprecedented scrutiny. That should be a plus. But the risk is real. In his analysis of the response to Bush v. Gore, political scientist Bert Kritzer noted that the Courts refusal to allow television cameras into oral argument may have served “to limit the vehemence of the public reaction to what the Court decides.”
On balance, the smart bet is on the Supreme Court’s continued ability to maintain diffuse support across the political spectrum. However, demonstrating procedural fairness in the decision and how it is presented will increase the odds of history repeating itself in June 2012 when the decision is announced