Canadians have a more favourable view of their Supreme Court than Americans have of their own
Most find the current process for appointing justices unacceptable, however.
In the academic world, it’s known as the “courts/parliament trade-off:” people either believe one institution or the other should have the final say on contentious policy issues.
In Canada, a new Angus Reid Institute poll finds there is a clear preference for the courts – especially the Supreme Court of Canada – over just about every other government institution in the country.
However, the study also finds that a strong majority of Canadians believe the current system for appointing Supreme Court justices is “unacceptable,” even as their goodwill for the court itself remains high.
In addition, the study puts together a profile of those Canadians who don’t love their Supreme Court, and compares public opinion of the court in Canada to Americans’ views of their own Supreme Court, demonstrating that the widespread veneration of the court north of the border may be a bit of Canadian exceptionalism.
- Majorities of Canadians express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in both the courts, generally (51%), and the Supreme Court of Canada, specifically (61%). No other institution surveyed has the confidence of more than a third of Canadians.
- Similarly, nearly three-quarters (74%) of Canadians have a favourable view of the Supreme Court, considerably more than the 64 per cent of Americans who have a favourable view of their country’s highest court.
- Opinion on the Supreme Court is highly correlated with opinion on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
- More than four-in-five (84%) say the Charter has been good for Canada since it was adopted in 1982. Among the 16 per cent who say it has been bad, more than half (58%) hold an unfavourable view of the Supreme Court.
- For all their love of the court, however, seven-in-ten Canadians (71%) say the current system of appointing Supreme Court justices – by Prime Ministerial appointment – is unacceptable, because it gives too much power over the composition of the court to the sitting Prime Minister.
Confidence in institutions
In comparison to other parts of Canada’s political and governmental system, the Supreme Court of Canada is wildly popular.
Borrowing from a scale developed in the Canadian Election Study, the Angus Reid Institute surveyed Canadians’ confidence in a variety of the country’s political institutions. The Supreme Court has the confidence of more Canadians than any other institution canvassed:
More than twice as many Canadians express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court as express such levels of confidence in Parliament (61% versus 28%, respectively).
Confidence in politicians (12%) and political parties (13%) is even lower, but the institution in which Canadians have the least faith is the Senate. Just one-in-ten respondents (10%) have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the scandal-plagued Red Chamber.
The 2011 CES survey asked about a different collection of institutions, but included two items on which a direct comparison can be drawn: “the courts,” and “the media.” In both cases, the results of this Angus Reid Institute poll show an erosion of confidence from the 2011 CES survey:
Roughly half (51%) of Canadians report having confidence in the courts in 2015, compared to seven-in-ten (71%) who reported the same in the 2011 CES.
Similarly, the proportion of Canadians expressing confidence in the media has slipped from 43 per cent in the 2011 CES poll to less than one-third (31%) in 2015.
Favourability toward the Supreme Court of Canada
Looking at opinion on the court in terms of favourability, rather than confidence, yields similar results. Roughly three-quarters of Canadians (74%) report, in a separate question, having a “very favourable” or “mostly favourable” opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada. A full majority of Canadians (59%) chooses the “mostly favourable” option:
In the United States, Pew Research has been tracking Americans’ opinions on their Supreme Court using this same question since 1985. The 74 per cent favourability toward the Supreme Court of Canada found in this ARI poll is higher than any number Pew has recorded for the Supreme Court of the United States since 1997.
Similarly, in a U.S.-based companion poll using the same question, ARI found that 64 per cent of Americans choose one of the two “favourable” options for their Supreme Court – a rating 10 percentage points lower than the one the Canadian court enjoys.
So, who are these Canadians who love the Supreme Court?
On both questions – favourability and confidence – Canadians with a university degree are more likely to express positive feelings about the Supreme Court. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of this group expresses confidence in the court, compared to 64 per cent of those with some college or technical school education and 53 per cent of those with a high school education or less.
Likewise, these Canadians are more likely to hold a favourable view of the court than other education groups. More than eight-in-ten (83%) have a favourable view of the court, compared to 74 per cent of the some college and technical school group and 67 per cent of the high school or less group.
Similar patterns hold true for Canadians with higher household incomes (who have more confidence in and a more favourable opinion of the Supreme Court than lower-income Canadians) and those who voted for the Liberal Party in the 2011 election:
Agreement with Supreme Court of Canada decisions
The high marks most Canadians give the Supreme Court are only partially reflected in their opinions of some of its prominent recent decisions.
Asked whether they agree or disagree with a series of recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions, pluralities or slim majorities of Canadians express agreement with each one, except a 2015 decision striking down mandatory minimum sentences for unlawful possession of a firearm.
Two-in-five respondents (40%) disagree with that decision, more than the 37 per cent who report agreeing with it. Some 7 per cent are not sure how they feel, and roughly one-in-six (16%) say they haven’t heard of the decision at all.
Agreement with the other decisions canvassed out-paces disagreement significantly, including by more than a two-to-one margin on the court’s 2013 decision that struck down Canada’s prostitution laws (54% agree versus 26% disagree):
The demographic groups that are more likely to express confidence in the court and a favourable opinion toward it are also more likely to agree with Supreme Court of Canada decisions. Those with a university education were more likely than other education brackets to agree with each of the decisions polled, as were those who voted for the Liberal Party in 2011 (see detailed tables at the end of the release).
Notably, as many as one-in-five respondents haven’t heard of some of the decisions asked about, including the granting of Aboriginal title to British Columbia’s Tsilhqot’in Nation (21%) and the blocking of the federal government from introducing elections for the Senate (20%).
By this measure, Canadians are less engaged with their Supreme Court’s decisions than Americans. A similar bank of important decisions made by the Supreme Court of the United States prompts fewer respondents to say they haven’t heard of the decisions than does the Canadian question.
The U.S. decision with the highest proportion of respondents who haven’t heard of it is the one allowing individuals and corporations to make unlimited monetary contributions to political action committees, better known as “Citizens United,” which was made five years ago, in 2010. Some 13 per cent of respondents have not heard of this decision.
Less than 10 per cent of respondents have not heard of each of the other three U.S. decisions canvassed.
Americans are also more likely to express disagreement with their court’s decisions than Canadians are to disagree with the ones they were asked about:
Opinion on the court and its decisions correlates strongly with opinion on the Charter
While the majority of Canadians hold positive views of the Supreme Court and its decisions, there is one group that is especially likely to hold negative views of the court: opponents of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Asked whether the Charter has been good or bad for Canada since it was adopted in 1982, the vast majority of Canadians (84%) say it has been “good” (64%) or “very good” (20%).
Among the 16 per cent of respondents who say the Charter has been bad for Canada, more than half (58%) have an unfavourable view of the institution charged with interpreting the Charter: the Supreme Court of Canada.
This group is also much more likely to express a lack of confidence in “the courts” generally (77% do so, compared to 44% of those who say the Charter has been good for Canada) and the Supreme Court of Canada, specifically (70% do so, compared to 33% of those who say the Charter has been good):
Those who believe the Charter has been bad for Canada are also more likely to disagree with each of the Supreme Court decisions asked about in this ARI survey. This includes:
- 42 per cent each who disagree with the prostitution decision and the Tsilhqot’in decision, respectively.
- 38 per cent who disagree with Senate decision
- 46 per cent who disagree with the assisted suicide decision
- A majority (51%) who disagree with the mandatory minimums decision
The effect of the court
The positive feelings Canadians have for the Supreme Court extend to the effect they believe it has had on various aspects of Canadian society.
Majorities feel the court has had a positive effect on “Canada as a whole” (57%) and “the individual rights and freedoms of Canadians” (58%), and a plurality say it’s had a positive effect on “everyday life for Canadians” (50%).
Roughly a third of Canadians (34%) say the court has had a positive effect on them specifically. That’s nearly triple the number who say it’s had a negative effect on them (12%). On this question, a majority (54%) say the court has had no effect either way. In short, Canadians are markedly less likely to see themselves as affected by the Supreme Court personally, yet they embrace it nonetheless.
On this question, again, responses are strongly correlated with one’s opinion on the Charter.
Charter opponents are considerably less likely than those who say the Charter has been good for Canada to describe the court’s effect on each aspect of Canadian society surveyed as positive:
Relatedly, those who say the Charter has been bad for Canada are more likely to describe the court’s effect as negative:
- They’re more than twice as likely as those who say the Charter has been good for Canada to say the Supreme Court has had a negative effect on individual rights and freedoms (44% say so, compared to 16% of those who say the Charter has been good).
- They’re more than three times as likely to say the court has had a negative effect on Canada as a whole (45% say so, compared to 12% of those who say the Charter has been good) and on everyday life for Canadians (40% versus 11%).
- They’re four times as likely as Charter proponents to say the Supreme Court has had a negative effect on themselves specifically (32% versus 8%).
Americans are much more split on this question with regard to the effect of their Supreme Court. Some two-fifths (40%) say the court has had a positive effect on the United States as a whole, compared to one-in-three (33%) who say it has had a negative effect.
Roughly one-third also say the U.S. court has had a negative effect on individual rights and freedoms (33%, compared to 44% positive) and everyday life (32%, compared to 37% positive) for Americans, and another quarter (24%) say it has had a negative effect on them personally (compared to 27% positive).
Each of the positive numbers is higher for the Canadian court, and each of the negative numbers is lower:
The courts/parliament trade-off
While Parliament and the Supreme Court of Canada are not always at odds with one another, the nature of the Canadian system of government means that conflicts between the two inevitably arise. When that happens, Canadians’ affection for the court leads them to side with it more often than not.
The Angus Reid Institute asked a variety of questions about the interaction between the court and the elected branch of government, and in nearly every case, the court prevailed:
- More than twice as many Canadians agree with the statement “the Harper Conservative government has recently tried to provoke the courts for political gain” (a charge some in the media have made) as disagree with it (52% agree, 20% disagree). Roughly a quarter (27%) aren’t sure.
- Significantly larger majorities agree with the statements “the Prime Minister’s power to appoint Supreme Court justices without parliamentary approval leads to overly partisan appointments” (70%) and “It’s a good thing we have the Supreme Court to keep government in check” (73%).
Indeed, Canadians are five times as likely to side with the Supreme Court of Canada on Charter questions as they are to side with the government (50% side with the court, 10% with the government):
Given these results, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that more than seven-in-ten Canadians (71%) believe the current system of appointing Supreme Court justices is “unacceptable” and “gives too much power to the sitting Prime Minister.”
Predictably, opinion on this question varies by party affiliation, with respondents who voted for Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party in 2011 more likely than voters for other parties to say the current system is “acceptable.”
That said, even among Conservatives, support for the current system falls short of majority support. Three-in-five 2011 CPC voters (60%) say the current system is “unacceptable,” compared to 40 per cent who say it’s acceptable. Past Liberal and New Democratic Party voters are even more likely to be opposed to the current system, with 75 per cent and 82 per cent, respectively, saying it’s unacceptable.
Shachi Kurl, Senior Vice President: 604.908.1693 firstname.lastname@example.org
Image Credit – Norman Maddeaux