Monday, March 20, 2017
New Poll on the Supreme Court
C-SPAN and PBS have posted the results of their poll on the Supreme Court. Rather than just an update of old numbers about support for the Supreme Court (more on that in another post), this poll has some interesting new questions too.
- Donald Braman and I have written about the limitations of polling that asks questions about the Supreme Court without practical stakes of Court decisions attached to those questions. This poll does what almost every poll about the Supreme Court does: ask generic questions without stakes attached. There is a social desirability bias leading respondents to state that they follow what the government is doing and that it matters, but there are reasons to doubt whether people actually follow the Supreme Court. While asking a question about President Donald J. Trump and then telling respondents about his immigration actions might not change the results that much, asking a question about the Supreme Court and telling respondents about recent decisions could change results. Some examples from this poll: 65 percent of respondents report that “very often” or “somewhat often” they follow news stories about the Court. 90 percent say the Court has “an impact on my everyday life as a citizen.” These numbers seem hard to believe, particularly given other results within the poll (only 43 percent can identify a Justice).
- I wrote an essay for a symposium hosted by The Yale Law Journal to mark the fifth anniversary of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. I wrote about Justice Sotomayor as “The People’s Justice,” a Justice with the unique ability to—and desire to—communicate to a broader cross-section of the public. Based on her public appearances, others seemed to agree that Justice Sotomayor was doing this. In the three years since then, the “Notorious R.B.G.” has emerged as a major meme of public discussion about the Supreme Court. Justice Ginsburg now appears to be more well-known than Justice Sotomayor (and more well-known than Justice Clarence Thomas, always as well-known as any other member of the Court).
- Much has been made about Justice Stephen Breyer’s attempt to be the progressive alternative to the late Justice Antonin Scalia in articulating a theory of the Constitution. Justice Breyer’s two books are certainly an attempt for him to claim this space in the public discourse. In this poll of 1,032 Americans (with a margin of error of +/- 3.05% at a confidence level of 95%), not a single one of the respondents has heard of Justice Breyer. Admittedly, the poll suggests surprisingly low levels of knowledge about the Court (only 43 percent can name any Justice). By contrast, another poll finds that 37 percent of Americans have an opinion about whether they like or dislike Justice Breyer. James L. Gibson and Gregory A. Caldeira have studied how knowledge of the Court can vary based on the nature of the question asked, particularly whether questions are open or closed list. However, it is worth noting that even in the other poll Justice Breyer is the least well-known member of the Supreme Court.
- We tend to name a Supreme Court by its Chief Justice. There is the Warren Court, the Burger Court, the Rehnquist Court and the Roberts Court. Implied in that is an assumption that Chief Justices will come to be associated prominently and publicly with that Court. Think of the “impeach Earl Warren” signs around the country during the heyday of the Warren Court. John Roberts, though, has been generally less widely known than many of his colleagues on the Court. In a previous poll from a few years ago, he was somewhere in the middle of the nine Justices in terms of how widely known he was. In this new poll, he is now second. Is that the result of his vote in the health care case?
- Fred Schauer’s marvelous Harvard Law Review foreword from 2005 argued that the Supreme Court is largely outside of the public eye because it is deciding issues not at the top of the agenda of the country. Lee Epstein and others have tried to measure how salient Supreme Court cases are, using various measures (newspaper coverage being one of the leading measures). Tom Clark, Jeffrey Station and Douglas Rice have an interesting new paper addressing these measures. This poll asks a very basic question that can also probe how important the Supreme Court is to Americans: among those who have visited Washington, it asks “[w]hen you visited Washington D.C. do you recall seeing any of the following places,” with the Court as one of those places. While 74 percent recalled visiting Congress and 81 percent recalled visiting the White House, only 35 percent recalled visiting the Supreme Court.
Posted by David Fontana on March 20, 2017 at 06:21 AM | Permalink