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Bench Memos

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And This Tells Us What, Exactly?



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Dozens of the nation’s newspapers probably carried a story I saw in my local rag yesterday morning, an Associated Press story about its own AP/Ipsos poll (PDF file) on people’s attitudes about the judiciary and judicial appointments. Here’s the lead in the story linked above, by Will Lester of AP: “About four in five Americans want the Senate to thoroughly examine the president’s nominees to be federal judges . . .” In our local paper, we got this alternative lead: “More than three-quarters of Americans say the Senate should aggressively examine federal judicial nominees and not just approve them because they are the president’s choices.”

Either way the story is introduced, it folds neatly into the Senate Democrats’ playbook. You can count on Democratic senators to recite this “fact” as though it were decisive in favor of their filibuster strategy. And the AP can, with a perfectly straight face, say that it put no spin on its own poll, asked no “slanted” question, and published a story with no intent to help or harm either side in the Senate debate.

Okay, let’s look at the question AP asked, and the responses it got:

As you may know, the president nominates federal judges, but the appointments must be approved by the U.S. Senate. Do you think the Senate should:
Give the president’s judicial nominees the benefit of the doubt and approve them without a lot of scrutiny: 18%
Take an assertive role in examining each nominee: 78%
Not sure: 4%
The set-up before this question is asked consists of three questions about how conservative or liberal respondents think judges are, how conservative or liberal they’d like Pres. Bush’s nominees to be, and how much they trust him to make the “right kind” of appointments to the bench. In themselves, these are pretty worthless questions, especially the two about judicial ideology, which give respondents no chance to say that judges, as judges, really ought to have no ideological leanings at all. And they completely fail to provide any context for the question that became the headline result of the poll. When respondents are asked the question above about the Senate’s role in judicial appointments, they have been given no contextual information about the months and years of filibustering in which Democrats have engaged, or about the fact that all the filibustered nominees have been “examined” already in hearings by “assertive” senators on both sides, or about the fact that all the nominees currently blocked by the Democrats have the support of the majority of the Senate.

In short, the poll asks respondents to choose, in a context-free environment, between an alternative that no political leader is advancing (that the Senate simply rubber-stamp judicial nominations in deference to the president), and an alternative that no political leader is against (that the Senate fulfill its responsibility to exercise its independent institutional judgment on the nominations). The only news in this poll is that AP/Ipsos could find 18% of a random sample of Americans to sign on to the stupid proposition that senators be slackers.

So why did AP task its pollsters to ask a question that yields no useful information? And why did it send out a wire story leading with the results of that one question, the most worthless one in the poll? The most natural answer seems to be that the poll and the story give Democrats some fresh talking points going into Tuesday’s cloture vote.



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