UT-Austin study finds Supreme Court is more conservative than 75% of public

Madeline Duncan, News Reporter

The United States Supreme Court is more conservative than 75% of Americans, according to research from a UT professor. 

Stephen Jessee, an associate government professor, led a decade-long study that compared public opinion to Supreme Court decisions. The study found that the Supreme Court has shifted from being aligned with the average American to being aligned with the average Republican. Researchers also found that most Americans underestimate how conservative the court is, which could influence public support for Supreme Court reforms such as court expansion and term limits for justices.

The shift came after Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2021, giving conservatives a 6-3 super majority, according to the study. Despite this shift, many Americans misperceived the court as getting more liberal than conservative, Jessee said. 

“In 2020, people thought the court was more conservative than it actually was,” Jessee said. “In 2021, people corrected back a little bit, perceiving the court to be more liberal than they did in 2020, but the court jumped to the right, so they now viewed the court as much more liberal than it actually was.”

Before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, Jessee said he expected the public to readjust their perception this year if the court made that decision. One issue with the Supreme Court not being aligned with the average American is a potential decline in public support of its legitimacy, Jessee said.

“The court doesn’t have the power of the purse,” Jessee said. “They don’t have an army, so they rely on their prestige and people’s respect and approval of the court to give their decisions weight. A lot of people worry that with the court getting more attention with the abortion case this term, the court’s legitimacy and approval could suffer a lot.”

Government sophomore Shyla Mohan said the gap between Supreme Court opinion and public opinion could lead to distrust in the courts.

“It’s hard for people to trust who’s on the Supreme Court, especially when it’s not lining up with our beliefs and ideologies,” Mohan said. 

Jessee and his team also found that if people perceive the court as being more conservative than themselves, they are more likely to support court reforms such as term limits for Supreme Court Justices.

George Christian, an international relations and global studies sophomore, said he supports limiting the amount of time a Supreme Court Justice can sit on the bench.

“I identify as a Democrat,” Christian said. “I do believe in setting term limits, or at least a mandatory retirement age for the Supreme Court Justices.”

In the future, Jesse said he and his team plan to conduct yearly surveys to monitor the gap between public opinion and Supreme Court opinion. 

“The goal is to make this a sort of resource for people who want to study the Supreme Court and the views of the American public over time,” Jessee said. “We plan on fielding a similar survey every year based on the major sort of salient cases that the court takes in each term.”