One of the reasons to focus on procedural fairness is that the public’s perception of it drives overall public approval of the courts. This is especially important in times like these, in which public confidence in government and other institutions is below historical norms. The United States Supreme Court is historically the leader in public support among courts, so it’s always of interest when Gallup reports the approval level for that court as it begins each term.
This year’s report card raises concern that the perception of the Supreme Court may be dropping on a long-term basis as people view them as increasingly political in their work. Gallup’s September 2012 survey showed less than half of the respondenrs, 49%, approving the way the court was handling its job with 40% disapproving. While that was up slightly from the 46%-45% approval found in a July 2012 survey—taken right after the healthcare ruling—it’s well below the 62% approval the court had in 2000 or the 61% approval it had in 2010.
Behind the number, though, is a partisan divide that has been evident since Bush v. Gore in 2000. Approval by Democrats slipped to 42% in 2001 and stayed in the 40’s until President Barack Obama’s election. But once he began appointing justices, support among Democrats increased to 75% in 2009. Republican approval reached 75% in 2006, but it fell to 49% in 2009. And a further drop in Republican support occurred after the healthcare decision: in September 2012, Republicans disapprove the job Supreme Court is doing (56%-36%) while Democrats approve it (57%-34%). Fortunately, Independents were positive (50%-35%), giving the court an overall approval in positive territory (49%-40%), even though slightly below the 50% mark.
On the plus side, Americans have greater trust in the judicial branch of government than in either the legislative or executive. Gallup’s September 2012 survey also asked how much trust respondents had in each branch, and 67% had a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the judicial branch, while the numbers for the other branches were 56% (executive) and 34% (legislative). And on this question there was less partisan divide: Republicans (62%), Democrats (69%), and Independents (68%) all had relatively good levels of overall trust in the judicial branch of government.
What’s the take-away message here? We’re in a time when public trust in government cannot be taken for granted, and there’s a growing suspicion that judges are political actors. Against this background, it’s vital that judges do our best to provide procedural fairness, which is a key component for maintaining public confidence in our work.