Every once in a while, it’s good to be reminded of just how unfamiliar many Americans are with major Washington power players.
In the midst of the retirement announcement of Justice Stephen Breyer and the chatter about who will replace him, the Supreme Court has been all over the news in the past week.
And yet, as recent polling data from Marquette University Law School suggests, most people struggle to even form opinions about most of the justices on the court.
In Marquette’s survey, a majority of Americas said they knew enough to offer opinions about only three of the nine justices: Clarence Thomas (55% were able to rate), Brett Kavanaugh (53%) and Sonia Sotomayor (50%).
(Sidebar: Kavanaugh is well-known but not well-regarded. The poll found that 32% of people had unfavorable opinions of him, while 21% viewed him favorably. That -11 net favorability was the worst of any of the nine justices.)
The only other justice to come close to being known by a majority of the public? The newest member of the court, Amy Coney Barrett, who 46% of respondents said they knew enough about to offer an opinion.
Only 1 in 5 people (21%) knew enough about Breyer to offer an opinion – despite the fact that he has been on the nation’s highest court since 1994. (Worth noting: The poll was in the field January 10 to 21, before Breyer announced his retirement.)
Those poll numbers reminded me of my single favorite – and most revealing – poll ever conducted about the Supreme Court (and the public’s knowledge of it).
In the summer of 2010, Pew Research Center asked who the chief justice of the United States was. More than half (53%) of those surveyed said they didn’t know. One in four (28%) named John Roberts as the correct answer.
Then it got really good: Eight percent named Thurgood Marshall, who was never the chief justice and died in 1993. Another 4% said Harry Reid, who was a member of the Senate at the time.
All of this is somewhat remarkable given the sway the court has over the laws of the country. The Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage and is set to rule on a challenge to Roe v. Wade – and that’s just in the last few years.
The Point: For people – like me – who follow this stuff very closely, it’s hard to imagine, but important to remember, that so many people know so little about the country’s highest court. It also puts to rest the idea that a Supreme Court nomination can fundamentally swing an election.