The Washington Post reported today on findings from a new Washington Post/ABC News poll. According to the Post‘s story, when asked whether they expect “the Supreme Court justices will rule on this case mainly (on the basis of the law) or mainly (on the basis of their partisan political views),” 50 percent chose “partisan political views” while 40 percent chose “on the basis of the law.” An additional one percent volunteered “both.” On this basis, the story was given the headline “Poll: More Americans expect Supreme Court’s health-care decision to be political.”
Though trumpeted by the Post‘s headline writers, the poll result does not tell us very much (even if we set aside any general skepticism of poll results. Neither the story nor the poll considers whether the respondents considered this answer to be a criticism of the Court, nor is there any consideration of whether this is how half of Americans view the Court generally. That is, it’s possible that a sizable percentage of the public thinks Supreme Court justices are always influenced by the partisan political views in high-profile cases, and it’s also possible that many who endorse a general statement about the Court may have different views about different justices (or about whether particular results are more or less likely to have been the result of political preferences).
Based on these poll results, it’s quite possible that many Americans think that at least some of the justices reach the correct result in particular cases in spite of — or even because of — their reliance upon their political preferences. After all, in this same poll a sizable majority of the respondents — 67 percent — said they want the Supreme Court to either strike down the mandate or strike down the health care reform law in its entirety. The poll also found that only 39 percent of Americans support the health care reform law, ” the lowest percentage since the Post-ABC poll began asking the question,” and that only one-half of self-identified Democrats said they wanted the entire law upheld.
Combined with other recent poll results, it’s hard to see how the finding headlined by the Post is all that significant. It’s even harder to understand why some progressive partisans think the President should campaign against the Court if it strikes down the mandate as he seeks reelection. Polls are consistently finding that most Americans believe the Supreme Court should and will strike down the mandate. If anything — and I stress if anything — this would suggest there’s more political risk to the Court from upholding the mandate than from striking it down. In the end, however, the justices should not base their votes on public opinion polls, but on what they believe the Constitution requires.