Monday, October 25, 2010

The Courts Being Pulled Into Politics

The Colorado midterm election will be a contest between the independence of the courts and the growing effort to pull the courts into the country’s current political polarization. Thus far, the courts have mostly escaped the high level of disapproval that has descended upon legislators, governors and the President.

A group of conservative activists has organized a campaign to vote “no” across the board on Colorado judges. The “Clear the Bench” organization has operated mostly without money to promote the idea that Colorado judges, especially on the Supreme Court, should not be retained due to their liberal rulings on tax matters.

Colorado is joined by Kansas and Iowa as a venue where appointed judges with retention elections are facing loud opposition. Although there will likely be an increase in anti-retention votes, the campaign, thus far, has gathered modest attention or little obvious support.

Courts generally are better thought of than other branches of government and, except for mostly rare, controversial cases, seldom generate vocal opposition or noisy demonstrations. A recent Gallup poll on the U.S. Supreme Court shows that its reputation is higher than the President’s or Congress’, but also subject to changing political trends.

The Court’s recent high point in approval was earlier in 2009 when Democratic identified voter support surged after the election of President Barack Obama and appointment of Sonia Sotomayor. More recently, of course, Obama has loudly criticized the Court for its decision in the campaign funding case.
Its recent low point was in 2004 (42%), shortly after the ruling on condemnation of private land for economic development purposes.
Partisanship makes a difference. For example, comparing the 2009 to the 2006 data show dramatic shifts in approval of the Court by Democrats and Republicans. Republicans approved the G.W. Bush Supreme Court, but not the Obama Court; the reverse was true for Democrats.

The Court is considered too liberal by about one-third of the public (32%) and too conservative by one-fifth (19%).  A plurality of Americans believe the Court has an “about right” ideology (43%).  An interesting finding since most observers believe the Court’s recent judicial philosophy has leaned conservative and will remain about the same with the new appointments – Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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