The Roberts Court has pursued an almost single-mindedly pro-corporate agenda, immunizing powerful corporate interest groups from campaign finance law, from laws intended to protect the environment, and from laws intended to protect women and older Americans in the workplace. Unfortunately, however, a recent Gallup poll suggests that these actions are going largely unnoticed by Americans at large. According to the poll, an individual’s opinion of just one justice — Justice Sonia Sotomayor — appears to drive their opinion of the Court at large far more than the Court’s actual decisions.
Justice Sotomayor joined the Court in August of 2009, and Gallup’s data shows a dramatic shift in public approval of the Court among both Democratic and Republican voters at the time of her confirmation:
Apparently, Democrats love Justice Sotomayor, as their approval of the entire Court nearly doubled after she joined it. Likewise, Republicans must loathe Sotomayor, since their approval of the very conservative Court declined 16 points the minute Sotomayor became a justice.
Both of these shifts bear little resemblance to the actual impact of Sotomayor’s confirmation. Justice Sotomayor is a center-left moderate who replaced another center-left moderate, Justice David Souter. And while there are some early indications that Sotomayor may be slightly to Souter’s left on corporate immunity cases and slightly to Souter’s right on executive power, it is diffcult to identify a single case that would have come out differently if Souter were still on the Court.
The “Sotomayor Effect” may also explain why an increasing percentage of Americans perceive the Court as “too liberal” even as the Court marches further and further to the right:
Once again, the data shows an increasing belief that the Court is liberal at the same time that Sotomayor joined its ranks, and a decrease in the number of people who perceive the Court as conservative. Likewise, the data shows a spike in the number of people who perceived the Court as “too conservative” at about the same time that conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined the Court. In other words, many Americans appear to base their opinion of the overall Court largely on the political views of the last high-profile nominee to be confirmed (Justice Kagan appears to have had a minimal impact on public perceptions of the Court, but most of the nation was distracted from her confirmation by the Gulf oil disaster and other higher profile stories).
Most importantly, this data demonstates the challenges facing progressives trying to educate the public about the harm the Roberts Court has done to American law. Hopefully, however, the public’s almost universally negative reaction to the Court’s most high profile corporate immunity case will begin to bleed through to public perceptions of the Court as a whole.