NEW YORK, N.Y. – September 23, 2010 – As the first Monday in October looms and the U.S. Supreme Court and its newly confirmed justice, Elena Kagan, look ahead to hearing new arguments, The Harris Poll asked Americans their awareness and opinions about some of the court’s practices. Although the Supreme Court heads one of the three branches of the U.S. government, two in five Americans (42%) say they are not knowledgeable about the Supreme Court confirmation process.
These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,775 adults surveyed online between August 9 and 16, 2010 by Harris Interactive.
Almost three in five (58%) Americans say they are knowledgeable about the process, with 14% saying they are very knowledgeable and 44% saying they are somewhat knowledgeable. However, Americans,65 and older (74%) and men (71%) are more likely to say they are knowledgeable on this compared to younger Americans, those 18-33, and women (both 46%).
During the confirmation process, however, a strong majority of Americans agree that nominees to the Supreme Court should be required to answer questions on specific issues (81%) and how they would vote in specific court cases, both past cases and hypothetical ones (63%) while just over half feel they should answer questions about their personal life (54%). Older Americans seem to be more strongly in favor of some of these types of interviews than are younger Americans, though. Over four in five (84%) of both Americans aged 46-64 and 65 and older agree that nominees should be required to answer questions about their views on specific issues, compared to three-quarters of those aged 18-33 who say the same (76%). Older Americans are also more likely to agree that nominees should be required to answer questions about their personal life (58% of those 46-64, and 68% of those 65 and older), compared to less than half of younger Americans (47% of those 18-33 and 48% of those 34-45), who say the same.
Older Americans are not the only ones who feel strongly about what should be required during these pre-confirmation interviews. Over three-quarters of Republicans (76%) say nominees should be required to say how they would vote in specific court cases, including both past and hypothetical ones, compared to 54% of Democrats and 63% of Independents who say the same. Similarly, 71% of Republicans think nominees should be required to answer questions about their personal life, compared to less than half of Democrats (49%) and Independents (49%) who think it’s important.
Type of Supreme Court Justice
When asked what type of person Americans would most like to see on the Supreme Court, half (51%) said someone who keeps their personal opinions of “right” and “wrong” to themselves and makes decisions strictly based on the letter of the law and the Constitution. One-third of Americans say they would prefer an independent thinker who uses creativity and an understanding of modern circumstances to inform their legal rulings (32%), just 6% say they would want someone who uses their own values or moral compass to guide their decisions, and one in ten are not at all sure what type of person they prefer (11%).
Looking by political party, a clear majority of Republicans (67%) prefer justices who make decisions based strictly on the letter of the law and the Constitution. Democrats are more split-45% say they prefer an independent thinker who uses creativity and an understanding of modern circumstances, while 38% say they prefer someone who makes decisions based strictly on the letter of the law.
Although all Americans don’t agree about all Supreme Court practices, they do say that the Court is a crucial governing body for the success of the United States (69%). In a sometimes rare show of similar opinion concerning policy, Republicans (71%), Democrats (74%), and Independents (70%) all agree on this point. Interestingly, women show more uncertainty on this, as 65% say that the Supreme Court is a crucial governing body for the success of the United States, compared to three-quarters of men (75%) who say the same. Just one in ten (10%) women say that the Supreme Court is not necessary-decision making power should lay within the state courts, and over one-quarter of women are not at all sure (26%).
Each time there is a Supreme Court confirmation, the debate begins anew as to whether these are productive or not. The confirmation process for Elena Kagan was no exception as she sustained rounds of hearings prior to being confirmed. One argument is the Senate should innately “trust” a President’s nomination and just provide “advice and consent.” However, the American public seems fairly strongly in favor of these interviews, at least on certain topics. Americans also broadly approve of the Supreme Court, yet many say they are not knowledgeable about its practices. This may call for better education in schools on the Supreme Court, which appears may have fallen off in recent years, considering the numbers of younger Americans’ knowledge, or lack thereof, compared to that of older Americans.
This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between August 9 to 16, 2010 among 2,775 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.
All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.
Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.
The full data tables associated with this release can be found here.