Is the New York Times trying to soften up the Supreme Court before its Obama-care ruling, which may come later in June? An unusual poll conducted by the Times and poll partner CBS News and plastered on Friday's front page is food for thought.
Friday's off-lead by Adam Liptak and Allison Kopicki insisted, "Approval Rating For Justices Hits Just 44% In Poll -- Decline Spans 25 Years -- Role of Personal Views Is Seen in Survey on Supreme Court ." Yet the paper buried the continuing strong opposition to Obama-care, even in a poll with a slightly wider partisan gap than usual (see bottom  of the CBS News version of the poll). So why did the Times lead off with the relatively obscure angle on Supreme Court justices?
Just 44 percent of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing and three-quarters say the justices’ decisions are sometimes influenced by their personal or political views, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS News.
Those findings are a fresh indication that the court’s standing with the public has slipped significantly in the past quarter-century, according to surveys conducted by several polling organizations. Approval was as high as 66 percent in the late 1980s, and by 2000 approached 50 percent.
Apparently none of those surveys were conducted by the Times, which according to this new poll has never asked the question before. (And a decline in approval from "approaching 50 percent" in 2000 to 44 percent in 2012 doesn't sound like a vast decline.) So why ask the question now? Buried deeper into the story was the fact that the Court's disapproval rating was only 36 percent.
Without evidence, Liptak blamed two conservative court decisions loathed by the Times for the decline:
The decline in the court’s standing may stem in part from Americans’ growing distrust in recent years of major institutions in general and the government in particular. But it also could reflect a sense that the court is more political, after the ideologically divided 5-to-4 decisions in Bush v. Gore, which determined the 2000 presidential election, and Citizens United, the 2010 decision allowing unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions.
“The results of this and other recent polls call into question two pieces of conventional wisdom,” said Lee Epstein, who teaches law and political science at the University of Southern California. One is that the court’s approval rating has been stable over the years, the other is that it has been consistently higher than that of the other branches of government, Professor Epstein said.
On the highest-profile issue now facing the court, the poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans hope that the court overturns some or all of the 2010 health care law when it rules, probably this month. There was scant difference in the court’s approval rating between supporters and opponents of the law.
(In February 2012, Liptak wrote a widely ridiculed front-page criticism of the constitution as outdated for failing  to entitle people to "free" education and health care.)
The court’s tepid approval ratings crossed ideological lines and policy agendas. Liberals and conservatives both registered about 40 percent approval rates. Forty-three percent of people who hoped the court would strike down the health care law approved of its work, but so did 41 percent of those who favored keeping the law.
The Times finally got to the nitty-gritty of public disapproval of Obama-care in paragraph 16 of 25.
Asked about the health care case, 41 percent of those surveyed said the court should strike down the entire law, and another 27 percent said the justices should overturn only the individual mandate, which requires most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty.
Only 24 percent said they hoped the court “would keep the entire health care law in place.”
These numbers have not changed much in recent months and appeared to be largely unaffected by the more than six hours of arguments in the Supreme Court in March.