WASHINGTON—Democrats looking ahead to confirmation hearings for the next Supreme Court justice are hoping to put the court itself on trial in an attempt to ride populist anger about the economy.

In recent decades it has typically been Republicans who have made outrage at the court an issue. Dating back to Richard Nixon, they have stoked conservative anger at decisions on such matters as abortion, school prayer and criminal procedure.

Democrats preparing for the possibly contentious debate over a successor for departing Justice John Paul Stevens say that under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has stacked the deck against ordinary Americans.

The touchstone of the Democratic strategy is the court's January ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down restrictions on corporate spending on election campaigns. Democrats cite polls showing broad public disapproval of the ruling as evidence of growing anxiety about the court's direction.

"People are very concerned," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) said in an interview. The Roberts court has displayed a pattern of "decisions by a slim, activist, conservative majority" that have "misconstrued laws designed to protect the American people, tilting the scales of justice in favor of corporate rights," Leahy said Wednesday after discussing the court vacancy with President Barack. Obama.

Business groups and Republicans say Democrats are distorting the court's record. Robin Conrad, who heads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's litigation arm, noted that the Roberts court has sometimes ruled against business, as in decisions that let patients sue drug makers over defective products and that allowed workers to sue employers in some instances.

Most such decisions came when Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who typically holds the swing vote, joined Justice Stevens and three other liberals to form a bare majority.

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