The Corner

Law & the Courts

Poll Respondents: We Have No Idea Who Is on the Supreme Court or What We Think of Them

Supreme Court justices settle in for their group portrait, November 30, 2018. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Marquette Law School released some fascinating results of a survey measuring what Americans think — and what they know — about the Supreme Court.

Most voters have limited familiarity with the justices. Prior to her death, Justice Ginsburg was the most widely recognized of the nine justices, with 63 percent saying they knew enough to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of her. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation in 2018 followed a contentious debate, was almost as well known, with 60 percent able to give an opinion about him. These are the best-known justices and, in the survey, 24 percent were unable to give an opinion of any of the nine justices, and just over half, 52 percent, could give an opinion of only three justices or fewer. Thirty percent could give an opinion of six or more justices.

Despite extensive news coverage, documentaries, a Hollywood biopic, T-shirts, action figures, a board game, and various other forms of pop-culture celebrity, 17 percent of respondents said they had never heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Perhaps most surprisingly, 39 percent of Americans don’t have an opinion about Brett Kavanaugh. (Among those who did, 28 percent felt favorable, 32 percent felt unfavorable.) His confirmation hearings were not exactly quiet or obscure; his nomination was arguably the biggest and most contentious fight in American politics in 2018, full of lurid accusations and vehement denials. And yet two years later, two out of every five Americans don’t have an opinion about him; 16 percent of respondents said they had never heard of him.

And those are the well-known justices. The survey found 53 percent of respondents have no opinion about Sonia Sotomayor, 55 percent have no opinion about Clarence Thomas (!); 58 percent have no opinion about John Roberts; 66 percent have no opinion about Neil Gorsuch; 73 percent have no opinion about Elena Kagan; 74 percent have no opinion about Samuel Alito and 81 percent of respondents had no opinion about Stephen Breyer.

During every big Supreme Court fight, pundits speculate about the long-term political effects of the fight. Considering how little Americans know or choose to remember about the Supreme Court, there is good reason to think that those effects are overstated. It is particularly fair to wonder if Supreme Court nominations really motivate the Democratic Party’s base. In 2016, Democrats did not mention Merrick Garland at their convention or much on the campaign trail; in 2020, Democrats barely mentioned judges at their convention.

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