WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court shifted to the right four years ago when conservative Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. succeeded moderate Sandra Day O’Connor.
And if American public opinion is the measure, the Roberts court has made the right call in most of its major decisions since then, according to a recent study that asked respondents about cases.
A strong majority favored conservative rulings that prohibited “partial-birth” abortions, upheld a homeowner’s right to have a gun, and required voters to show photo identification.
The majority also supported liberal rulings that said environmental regulators could restrict the carbon pollution linked to global warming and that struck down state laws that put juvenile criminals in prison for life without hope for parole.
All these cases split the court along conservative-liberal lines, and most were decided by 5-4 votes.
There were two notable exceptions. The public disagreed with the liberal decision two years ago that gave detainees at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a right to challenge their detention in a civilian court. Sixty-one percent of respondents said these noncitizen detainees should not be allowed to go to court.
The public also disagreed with the conservative ruling earlier this year that gave corporations a right to spend freely to endorse or oppose candidates for election. By 58 percent to 40 percent, they disagreed with the notion that “corporations ought to be able to spend their profits on TV advertisements urging voters to vote for or against candidates.” President Barack Obama blasted the court’s decision in his State of the Union address in January.
Columbia University law professor Nathaniel Persily said the court historically has been “to the left of the public” on issues that attract attention, such as crime, religion and affirmative action. Along with Harvard political science professor Stephen Ansolabehere, he set out to survey the public’s view of actual cases. Their Constitutional Attitudes Survey asked more than 1,600 respondents in 2009 and 2010 about issues that were before the Supreme Court.
The campaign finance decision in January “is very out of step with public opinion,” Persily said. In the Citizens United case, the court struck down a federal law that barred corporations or unions from spending money to support or oppose candidates for office.
The respondents not only opposed the decision, but 85 percent of them said corporations should be required to get the approval of their shareholders before spending money on political campaigns.
Overall, the court’s current and nuanced position on the death penalty and abortion is in line with public opinion, the survey found.
A majority supports the death penalty for murder, and the court has upheld capital punishment. The public also agreed with the rulings that ended the death penalty for those who are mentally handicapped (in 2002) and for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes (in 2005).
On abortion, the public supports – by a 61 percent to 38 percent majority – the Roe v. Wade ruling that set forth the right to an abortion, but it also supports regulations and restrictions, including limits on late-term abortions.