Recent Supreme Court rulings alienate the left but are hardly unpopular


Polls suggest the new decisions aren’t out of step with the American public, despite Democrats’ attempts to lump them in with last year’s loss of abortion rights

A photo illustration of the supreme court with a data line behind it. In a border around it is a crowd of people.
(Natalie Vineberg/Washington Post illustration; iStock)

After a series of key setbacks for their side on affirmative action, gay weddings and student loan debt forgiveness, Democrats are again railing against the Supreme Court. They have lumped the decisions in with perhaps the court’s most unpopular and consequential adverse ruling in recent times: the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year.

But unlike the decision that ended Americans’ right to abortion, these most recent decisions are not as obviously unpopular with the American public. And indeed, some of them could even be understood as having popular support.


In some major cases where the court’s six conservatives formed the majority …

… Americans were at least evenly split, and in some polls clearly sided with the court.

College admissions may not use affirmative action

Business owners may deny services if it conflicts with

their LGBTQ+ beliefs

Biden administration may not forgive student loan debt

Sources: Washington Post-Schar School poll, Pew survey, NBC poll

NICK MOURTOUPALAS/THE WASHINGTON POST

In some major cases where the court’s six conservatives

formed the majority …

… Americans were at least evenly split, and in some polls

clearly sided with the court.

Business owners may

deny services if it conflicts

with their LGBTQ+ beliefs

Biden administration may

not forgive student loan debt

College admissions may not

use affirmative action

Sources: Washington Post-Schar School poll, Pew survey, NBC poll

NICK MOURTOUPALAS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Perhaps the court’s most significant new decision came on affirmative action. The opinion severely restricts the use of race in college admissions programs.

This would seem to be in line with the views of the American people. A Washington Post-Schar School poll late last year showed that Americans supported banning colleges and universities from considering a student’s race and ethnicity in admissions, 63 percent to 36 percent. Even nearly half of Black Americans (47 percent) and Democrats (47 percent) said they supported such a ban.

A recent AP-NORC poll showed a nearly polar-opposite result. But most polls generally show Americans more opposed to than supportive of affirmative action policies, often by wide margins. That includes a Pew Research Center poll last month showing that Americans disapproved of such policies 50 to 33 percent, and a CBS News-YouGov poll last month showing that Americans opposed using race in admissions 70 to 30 percent.

An ABC News-Ipsos poll conducted after the Supreme Court ruling showed that Americans supported the decision “restricting the use of race as a factor in college admissions” 52 to 32 percent.

That same poll, coming after the final decisions of the term late last week, showed closer splits on the other two highest-profile cases. In those cases, possibly even more than in the case of affirmative action, public opinion has varied widely depending upon how the question is asked.

The court’s decision exempting a web designer from serving gay weddings is a particularly pronounced example.

A year after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, a Pew Research Center poll showed Americans were about evenly split on whether businesses that provide wedding services should be able to refuse to serve same-sex couples if they have religious objections. In another poll, in 2018, Americans said by a 2-to-1 margin that it would be wrong and discriminatory for a florist to turn away a customer because the flowers were for a gay wedding.

(Americans also increasingly support same-sex marriage, with 7 in 10 overall and often even a majority of Republicans supporting it.)

But when Pew asked a similar question earlier this year, it showed Americans favored a business’s ability to refuse services 60 to 38 percent — a result in line with the Supreme Court’s decision. This time, Pew in its question referenced how a business might “object to providing services in situations where this could suggest support for beliefs about lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues that they have personal or religious objections to.”

Most notably, the question specifically cited “a designer of wedding websites who has objections to same-sex marriage.”

The Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Biden administration’s attempt to forgive student loan debt arguably runs more afoul of public opinion. But the key word there is “arguably.”

When early surveys asked about various levels of debt forgiveness (some Democrats pushed for more than President Biden advocated), Americans generally liked where Biden landed. (He chose $10,000 for borrowers earning up to $125,000, or for each borrower in a married couple jointly earning up to $250,000, plus another $10,000 for Pell Grant recipients.)

A Monmouth University poll last year showed Americans backed canceling $10,000 per borrower, 61 to 37 percent. A Fox News poll in February offered options of forgiving all student debt, forgiving $20,000 for those making $125,000 or less, or not forgiving any debt. And more than 6 in 10 wanted at least $20,000 forgiven.

But more recent polls offering an up-or-down question on Biden’s specific plan show a more even split. A USA Today-Ipsos poll in April showed Americans in support, 47 to 41 percent, while an NBC News poll showed 44 percent said the plan was a bad idea, and 43 percent said it was a good idea.

Beyond that is the question of whether Biden had the authority to forgive the debt unilaterally, which is what the court was tasked with deciding. (The court’s decision notes that former House speaker Nancy Pelosi last year said Biden didn’t have such authority.) Even the Fox poll that said 6 in 10 Americans liked the idea of forgiving some debt showed that Americans thought Biden had exceeded his authority, 49 to 44 percent.

State lawmakers’ power to decide election issues

The last decision we’ll touch on is less well-polled, but it suggests that the Supreme Court was very much in line with public opinion. It has to do with the court’s rejecting the “independent state legislature theory,” or the idea that state legislatures have almost unlimited power to decide their federal election policy without being checked by state courts.

This was a radical idea pushed by allies of former president Donald Trump who tried to overturn the 2020 election. It was the kind of plot that would have been furthered if such a theory held up, and Democrats feared that the court might hand the election deniers a powerful tool. But the court rejected it.

There is little polling on the subject. A recent Marquette University Law School poll showed 70 percent of Americans had not heard enough to offer an opinion. But among those who did offer an opinion, they opposed the theory, 75 to 25 percent.

There’s little question that the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade animated Democrats in the 2022 elections and continues to give Republicans political fits. It’s also understandable that Democrats are worried about how the newly extra-conservative-leaning court is ruling on key issues.

But that’s not the same as saying these decisions are likely to fuel a popular backlash, as the decision overturning Roe did. It’s possible Democrats could use these decisions to motivate their base, but they don’t seem to be anywhere near the level of the decision to end abortion rights.

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