New UMass Poll Finds Increasing Disapproval of Supreme Court, Support For Keeping Roe On the Books

Photo: Victoria Pickering (Flckr.com). (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Disapproval for the Supreme Court continues to climb following the news that the court may be poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states the ability to ban abortions, according to the results of a new University of Massachusetts Amherst Poll released on May 12. 

Conducted after the draft majority opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked to the media, the national poll of 1,000 respondents age 18 and older found 54% disapprove of the job the court is doing, up from 51% disapproval in a December 2021 UMass Poll and 43% in an April 2021 UMass Poll. A full one-third of respondents (33%) expressed strong disapproval of the court, up from 18% last April and 25% in December. Only 33% of respondents expressed overall approval of the court in the new poll, stable with December’s findings and down from 42% last April.

“Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s concern that the court’s decision on abortion could challenge the court’s legitimacy and the justices’ perceived status as impartial seems prophetic as approval for the court has plummeted in the last year,” says Tatishe Nteta, Associate Professor of Political Science at UMass Amherst and director of the poll. “While the court has generally stayed on the sidelines in the nation’s partisan wars, with their impending decision on abortion, the court has thrust itself directly into the partisan fray. The question is whether the court’s reputation as an impartial defender of the Constitution will survive their rightward turn.”

The only demographic groups that responded with higher approval of the court since the April 2021 UMass poll were Republicans (62% approve, +16 since April 2021), conservatives (63% approve, +18), those who view religion as “very important” in their lives (51% approve, +2), and Trump voters (60% approve, +17). All other demographic groups surveyed registered increased disapproval over the past year.

Just 29% of women approve of the court in the new poll — down from 39% in April 2021, but up two points from 27% in December — while 38% of men approve of the way the court is doing its job, down from 46% last year. The percentage of Democrats approving of the court’s performance dropped 27 percentage points, from 45% in April 2021 to just 18% in the latest poll, while approval among independents dropped from 32% to 20%. While half of ideological moderates polled last April (50%) approved of the court’s performance, only 28% did so in the latest poll.

“The court’s likely ruling in Dobbs is reflective of a broader political development in which Republicans have used the court to advance objectives that are unpopular with the public but enjoy support among conservative activists,” says Jesse Rhodes, Professor of Political Science at UMass Amherst and associate director of the poll. “From abortion to gun rights to voting, Republicans have pushed policies through the court that could never have been enacted via legislation.”

Roe v. Wade and Abortion Rights
Fully half (50%) of Americans believe the Supreme Court should let the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade stand, according to the new poll, while slightly more than one-third (34%) want the court to overturn Roe. A plurality of the poll’s respondents — 45% — want to see Congress pass a law legalizing abortion in all 50 states, while just 15% want the legislative branch of government to make the procedure illegal nationally and 39% want Congress to pass no law on the issue and leave the decision on abortion up to individual states to legislate within their own borders.

“The court’s likely ruling in Dobbs is out of step with public opinion,” says Rhodes. “Americans have grown accustomed to broad individual freedoms around reproduction and family planning. These expectations cross partisan and ideological lines — even Republicans and conservatives, who strongly oppose abortion, don’t support banning it nationally or limiting women’s access to it in states where it is legal. If Republicans take further steps to limit reproductive rights, they could face steep backlash, including from members of their own party.”

“With the Supreme Court likely to overturn Roe, defenders of abortion rights are looking to the U.S. Congress to establish a national right to a legal abortion,” Nteta adds. “However, given the power of the filibuster coupled with the lack of majoritarian support for such a law it is unlikely that such legislation will pass the U.S. Senate in the foreseeable future.”

Asked about additional potential restrictions on women’s reproductive rights that states may impose beyond total bans on abortion, no option proved popular among the poll’s respondents. Just over one-third of those surveyed (34%) expressed any support for a law prohibiting abortions after six weeks, while 44% of the public opposes such a proposal with 34% of respondents expressing strongly opposition. Two-in-10 respondents support a law allowing anyone to sue a person or organization assisting a woman in having an abortion (21%) and a law prohibiting access to abortion pills (20%), however 47% of the public strongly opposes each of these measures. Fully half of the respondents (50%) strongly oppose laws prohibiting women from travelling out of state to receive an abortion, while only 17% support them. Just 7% of those polled expressed any support for laws prohibiting birth control while 64% strongly oppose the idea, and three-quarters of respondents (75%) oppose such laws overall.

While just 28% of the poll’s respondents said they were somewhat or very happy about the court’s impending decision to overturn Roe and allow states to pass laws banning abortion, 40% said that they were very unhappy by the recent news. Overall, however, nearly three-quarters (73%) said that they weren’t surprised by the news.

Two-thirds (66%) of Republicans surveyed in the poll stated that Roe should be overturned, compared to 31% of independents and just 12% of Democrats. Among respondents who hold view religion as very important in their life, 58% want Roe reversed, as do 70% of conservatives.

“For decades, the Republican Party has sought to overturn Roe and with the Supreme Court poised to deliver on this goal, conservatives, Republicans and Trump voters all give the court high marks for a job well done,” Nteta says.

With Dobbs at the heart of the current abortion debate, the UMass Poll asked respondents about their knowledge of what the case would actually mean, depending on the court’s decision. More than one-in-four (26%) of the poll’s respondents mistakenly believe that if the court rules in favor of Dobbs in the case and nullifies Roe abortion would be illegal in all of the U.S. Seventy-four percent correctly indicated that the ruling would make it so that individual states can establish laws banning abortion.

“Among other things, this shows just how much many Americans are fearful and upset about the role of the court in American society – they attribute sweeping powers to the institution that it doesn’t possess,” Rhodes says of the quarter of the population who misunderstand the Dobbs Case.

Court Reform Proposals, Including Expansion and Term Limits
“While Alexander Hamilton once wrote that the Supreme Court was the ‘least dangerous’ branch of the federal government,” Nteta says, “with the court poised to eliminate a woman’s right to choose and potentially the right to privacy along with it, a wide swath of Americans support significant alterations to the structure of the court and the power and independence of the Justices.”

Two-thirds (66%) of the poll’s respondents support establishing clear rules to determine when U.S. Supreme Court justices should not participate in cases due to a conflict of interest, including 58% of Republicans and 51% of independents. Only 7% of the poll’s respondents oppose the proposal.

A solid majority (58%) also supports establishing term limits on Supreme Court justices — including 75% of Democrats, 42% of Republicans and 52% of independents — with only 17% opposed, while a quarter (25%) of respondents are undecided.

The poll found that support for the expansion of the Supreme Court (33%) trails opposition (39%), although 29% neither support nor oppose the proposition. While 58% of Democrats and 70% of liberals support increasing the number of Supreme Court justices, only 9% of Republicans and 21% of independents indicate a willingness to back the idea.

“Although the barriers to enactment are high, we should expect continuing public conversation about institutional changes to the court,” says Rhodes. “Many Americans perceive that the court is not operating by normal rules of fair play and that its members aren’t representative of — or responsive to — the public. The court’s likely ruling in Dobbs only deepens this legitimacy crisis. Expect court reform to become a significant talking point for Democrats.”

“This is some of the first polling since the Dobbs leak detonated on the American political and policy landscape, and it provides a snapshot of where the nation is as it processes a post-Roe future,”  says Alexander Theodoridis, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and associate director of the poll. “We find that most, though not all, Americans understand that this decision will allow states to ban abortion but not automatically ban abortion nationwide. A majority of Americans are against the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, including a third of Republicans. Fewer than a third of Americans are happy about the decision. This all helps explain why we have not seen much in the way of victory laps from GOP elites with the end of Roe impending.”

The margin of error within this poll is 3.5%. 

Topline results and cross tabs for the poll can be found at 
www.umass.edu/poll

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