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Focus Group Report: Perceptions of the Supreme Court among Democrats, independents, and Republicans in Virginia, Nevada and Minnesota

Thursday, July 20, 2023 By Rachael Russell
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Focus Group Report: Perceptions of the Supreme Court

This Navigator Research report contains contains findings from focus groups among young progressive and liberal Democrats in Virginia, highly-engaged independents in Nevada, and Republicans in Minnesota assessing their perceptions of the Supreme Court following the end of the term, including awareness of and reactions to recent decisions, assessments of alleged ethics violations by several conservative Justices, and support for various potential Court reforms.

The majority of participants feel pessimistic about the direction of the country as many blame increased political polarization.

When asked what is going well in the country, most answered “not much” or “nothing,” as many felt they were unable to recall positive stories in the news. As one participant succinctly put it: “Things are hyper-polarized.” However, some participants noted technological innovations as positives for the country along with greater political engagement, especially among young Americans.

  • A Republican from Minnesota expressed: “I was trying to be positive… like, what can I be positive about? I cannot come up with a word [for] what’s going well, because there’s a lot of things I disagree with that’s going on right now.” 
  • A Democrat from Virginia felt: “I’d say, engagement… maybe it’s partly me getting older, but I just feel like people in general, especially younger people, are more engaged in politics, whether it’s positive or negative.”
  • An independent from Nevada stated: “Technological innovation… we still, in this country, have a pretty robust higher education system for those who can afford it, and levels of research and levels of innovation.”
Report slide titled: Participants Feel Little is Going Well in the Country
Report slide titled: Some Point to Political Engagement, Technological Innovation, and Inclusivity as Positive Trends

A vast majority of participants hold an unfavorable view of the Supreme Court, as most felt the Court is conservative-leaning and holds too much power.

When expressing a single-word sentiment to describe the Court, many chose negative descriptors such as “non-trusting” or “scared.” Participants felt the Supreme Court has too much power and is not representing the public well. Further, most participants said the Court is too conservative to the point that outcomes of cases are predictable prior to their decision. Democrats and a significant share of independent participants support the idea of term limits for Supreme Court Justices, while Republican participants were more skeptical of the idea. 

  • A Democrat in Virginia said: “I just feel like they have the power to change so many things that are out of our control, and it’s a power control, and it’s scary. And in regards to women’s rights, and like LGBTQ+ [rights], there’s just so much power there, that shouldn’t be all in their hands.”
  • An independent in Nevada felt: “It’s almost like we don’t have an opinion anymore. No matter what, we already know what the end result is going to be.” in assessing the conservative lean of the Court.
  • Another Nevada independent expressed: “I think they have a more conservative lean, conservative tilt. I think a lot of us feel that way as well… they definitely have a conservative skew to it. And that’s just happened because more Supreme Court Justices have died or retired during Republican 10 years than Democrat.”
  • In commenting about term limits, a Democrat from Virginia replied: “I’m totally for it. It almost seems like something that I would be like, ‘why hasn’t that been implemented already?’… almost every other kind of politician has a term limit. I’m not sure as to why specifically the Justices wouldn’t.” By contrast, a Republican in Minnesota felt: “Well, we have enough chaos already electing the people that we’re electing already. That branch of government, I don’t think we can afford to add that chaos to that branch of government.” 
Report slide titled: Few Have Positive Words for the Supreme Court, Including Among Republicans
Report slide titled: Participants Feel the Supreme Court Has Too Much Power and is Untrustworthy
Report slide titled: Democrats and Independents More Inclined to Support Term Limits Than Republicans
Report slide titled: Most Participants View the Court as Having a Conservative Tilt and Feel That Ideology Determines How Decisions Go

Participants across partisanship were outraged by recent news stories describing the actions of some Justices, deeming them “corrupt” and “disheartening.”

When asked about the ProPublica article published about Justice Alito’s relationship to a donor, many expressed concern about corruption across partisanship, with an independent from Nevada saying “it sounds like bribery a little bit to me” and another participant calling it “very shady.” Reaction to news about Justice Clarence Thomas was even more deeply negative, with independents in Nevada referring to taking income in the form of vacations and tuition for his nephew as “disgusting” and “a textbook quid pro quo.” After hearing about a number of recent stories about different Justices and potential ethics violations, participants used far more negative words to describe the Court, including “corrupt,” “brazen,” and “infuriating.” 

  • When reacting to news about Justice Alito, one Minnesota Republican felt: “I think it paints a bad picture, and I think saying the seat was empty regardless is a really lame answer.”
  • An independent from Nevada said: “It sounds like bribery a little bit to me… I think if you’re a Justice on the Court, you need to be completely unbiased and you shouldn’t be swayed in any way to go in any direction.”
  • A Democratic participant from Virginia stated: “Well, this conflict of interest, that you’re with someone who’s so influential who, on the legislative side, could lobby for issues, that could seek legal permission for things that they could lobby for in Congress”  about the scandals surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas.
Report slide titled: Across the Board, Justices’ Ethical Behaviors are Extremely Concerning and More Extensive Than Participants Thought
Report slide titled: Participants Point to a Theme of Corruption Running Throughout Both Thomas Stories
Report slide titled: After Hearing More Information, Participants View Supreme Court as “Shady,” “Corrupt,” “Disheartening”

Participants’ had strong reactions to the recent Supreme Court decisions regarding student loan debt, affirmative action, and LGBTQ+ rights.

On affirmative action, Democrats from Virginia were dumbfounded that something that has been in place for decades was suddenly reversed. Negative responses to the decisions on student loan debt cancellation and LGBTQ+ rights were driven primarily by Democrats as they found them to be “upsetting.” However, the decisions received mixed reaction by independents and were more favorable to Republican participants, who said that “the taxpayer should not be on the hook for someone’s degree” and that “a business owner has the right to do what business owner wants to do.”  

  • In response to the affirmative action case, an independent from Nevada expressed: “I’ve always felt that affirmative action, as complex as the debates are, it’s something that’s been necessary, something absolutely necessary. And that there could become a time in society where it is no longer necessary. But I don’t think that time is yet. And I think that a very conservative Court has pulled the plug way prematurely on affirmative action issues.” 
  • On the decision to block President Biden’s authority to provide student loan debt relief, a Minnesota Republican felt: “I certainly support [the Supreme Court’s] decision, and I think that the focus needs to be on reigning in these colleges and the amount of money that they are making, the amount that they’re charging.”
  • An independent from Nevada stated: “Personally, I do not feel that that is beneficial in any way. How someone personally lives their lifestyle should not deter how they’re treated. They should be treated equally in my eyes, whether you believe in their lifestyle or not.’
  • In response to all the decisions, a Democrat from Virginia expressed: “It almost feels like going back in time, or rolling… but it almost feels like going back in time or rolling back progress that was made before I was born [with regards to the recent cases].”
Report slide titled: Recent Supreme Court Decisions Have Young Democrats Feeling Scared for the Country’s Future
Report slide titled: Participants Feel Strongly on Affirmative Action, Student Loan Forgiveness, and LGBTQ+ Rights

Participants wanted increased transparency and consequences for ethical violations, enforced externally beyond the Justices themselves.

After being informed of the recent ethical violations, participants expressed strong support for Supreme Court Justices being subject to similar ethical standards and consequences as lower court judges. Many felt investigations of potential ethics violations by Justices and structural consequences for them were important to ensure that no one is above the law and that they are held to account when they happen to be an external entity to enforce the standards. 

  • A participant from Minnesota expressed: “I think that, regardless of what side you are on an issue, whether it’s for your side or not, the code of conduct should be demanded.” 
  • A Virginia Democrat felt: “I don’t trust the Supreme Court to do it themselves… they’ll hide something.”
  • An independent from Nevada stated: “There needs to be a process when people have ethical issues like that to get these people removed. That’s disgusting.”
Report slide titled: Participants Call for Transparency and Consequences for Supreme Court Justices’ Ethical Violations
Report slide titled: There is Little Trust in the Supreme Court to Impose Ethics Rules Upon Themselves
Report slide titled: Negative Perception of the Court Solidified After Hearing About Allegations

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About The Study

GBAO conducted three online focus groups on July 12, 2023 with young progressive and liberal Democrats in Virginia, Republicans in Minnesota, and independents in Nevada. Some quotes have been lightly edited for brevity. Qualitative results are not statistically projectable.

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About Navigator

In a world where the news cycle is the length of a tweet, our leaders often lack the real-time public-sentiment analysis to shape the best approaches to talking about the issues that matter the most. Navigator is designed to act as a consistent, flexible, responsive tool to inform policy debates by conducting research and reliable guidance to inform allies, elected leaders, and the press. Navigator is a project led by pollsters from Global Strategy Group and GBAO along with an advisory committee, including: Andrea Purse, progressive strategist; Arkadi Gerney, The Hub Project; Joel Payne, The Hub Project; Christina Reynolds, EMILY’s List; Delvone Michael, Working Families; Felicia Wong, Roosevelt Institute; Mike Podhorzer, AFL-CIO; Jesse Ferguson, progressive strategist; Navin Nayak, Center for American Progress Action Fund; Stephanie Valencia, EquisLabs; and Melanie Newman, Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

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