Constitution Daily

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Surveys: Many Americans know little about the Supreme Court

February 17, 2016 by Scott Bomboy


The upcoming nomination battle over a vacant Supreme Court seat could expose some Americans to an institution they know little about – the Supreme Court itself.

Judge Judy. Source: CBS
Judge Judy (who is not on the Supreme Court). Source: CBS

In the past few years, polling firms have included questions about the Court and its nine Justices among its surveys of popular political and civic knowledge. And not surprisingly, many of those surveyed in the general population couldn’t name key players and policies in all three branches of the federal government – and especially the Supreme Court.

For example, a poll released in January 2016 fielded by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni showed that about 10 percent of college graduates believed TV’s Judith Sheindlin (aka Judge Judy) is on the United States Supreme Court.  As of today, Sheindlin is not on the Supreme Court.

Among the college graduates, about 62 percent correctly answered that Elena Kagan is on the current Court, and not Sheindlin, John Kerry or retired federal judge Lawrence Pierce. Overall, just 44 percent of all those polled identified Kagan as a Supreme Court Justice. (Another 35 percent of those polled thought impeachment trials took place in the Supreme Court.)

A similar survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, released in September 2015, showed that many people struggled to answer basic questions about the Court.

For example, 32 percent of Americans couldn’t identify the Supreme Court as one of the three branches of the federal government, and 28 percent thought Supreme Court case decisions were returned to Congress for reconsideration. And another 25 percent were in favor of eliminating the Supreme Court entirely if it made too many unpopular decisions.

The struggles many Americans face with civics knowledge is well-documented. Back in 2011, Newsweek had a group of 1,000 people take a standard citizenship test; only 62 percent passed. In addition, only 37 percent knew that are nine Justices on the Supreme Court.

In a 2015 Pew Research survey, only 33 percent of Americans could answer correctly that three women are on the current Supreme Court bench. Another Pew survey in 2013 showed pictures of four Justices and asked respondents to name the Justice who was frequently the Court’s swing vote; only 28 percent could name Anthony Kennedy as the correct answer.

In a similar photo lineup in 2012, just before the Court’s decision on Obamacare, just 34 percent of those surveyed could identify an image of Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Just after the Affordable Care Act ruling, 45 percent of those polled didn’t know the ruling upheld the ACA.

On Tuesday, Gallup looked back on its past polling data about the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which showed many Americans were unfamiliar with him. Last July, 29 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Scalia, with 27 percent had an unfavorable opinion. But a bigger number, 32 percent, had no idea who Scalia was.

A total of 44 percent of people in 2015 had no opinion or no idea who Scalia was – the same number received by Chief Justice Roberts. Almost half of Americans had no knowledge or opinion of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Americans do have opinions about the Supreme Court as an institution. Since 2000, Gallup has fielded a specific public approval poll about the Court. Last September, Gallup said 95 percent of people polled had some opinion about the Supreme Court: 50 percent disapproved of the Court, while 45 percent approved of the job it was doing. In 2000, 62 percent of Americans approved of the Court.

But the Gallup numbers show that while current Court approval numbers are lower, as of 2015, the Court has an institution far outranks Congess, which had an approval rating of 14 percent last September. President Obama’s approval rating last September was 47 percent.

Gallup’s research on overall trust in the three branches of the federal government goes back to 1973, when 45 percent of people had a high level of trust in the Supreme Court, compared with 42 percent for Congress. Today, those numbers are 32 percent for the Court and just 8 percent for Congress.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.


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