Public perception and the SCOTUS: Love to hate it or “Meh…”

By Cara L. Gallagher, Weekend Contributor

Futility. Making sense of both public knowledge and opinion of the third branch of government is an exercise in futility. Either people love to hate the Supreme Court or they know nothing about it. There’s no middle ground. I wrote about Court rancor two years ago when Pew Research Center released data from a survey taken at the end of a big term. The timing of the poll, rather the release of the poll results, struck me as convenient given the rulings on same-sex marriage cases Part I, affirmative action, and voting rights had come down three months before. It seemed poised to affirm conventional wisdom that public reaction to the decisions falls in either the “Love it” or “Hate it” camp. There is seldom any middle ground to the average voting age citizen. Follow that up with “What do you think of the job the Court is doing?” and the answers are an ambiguous “Meh…” or return to “Same response. Hate it.”

Perhaps polling near the end of the Court’s term isn’t the best time to take the pulse on a branch of government whose approval rating couldn’t possibly slump as low as Congress’. (12%)

Maybe asking right around now – late May/early June – would yield less judge-y, possibly more informed reflections on the “least dangerous branch” of government? After all, we’re weeks away from learning the decisions about same-sex marriage Part II, free speech on Facebook, fair housing, death penalty, and Obamacare; cases people have been following in the news and are stakeholders. Maybe?

Nope. And here’s why.

Pew Research Center recently released a 12-question survey to “Test your knowledge of prominent people and major events in the news.” At the end, you can “see how you did in comparison with a nationally representative group of 3,147 randomly selected U.S. adults surveyed online and by mail.” I took the quiz* and found the questions topical, timely, and was pleasantly surprised to see a question about the Supreme Court pop up.

I immediately emailed this quiz to a man who is one of the smartest person I know, who also happened to be sitting near me at the time. This guy is protégé smart. He can spew facts from sources he remembers reading last year. I know this because I’ve enjoyed fact-checking him. His brilliance knows no subject bounds and he loudly prides himself on his expertise of current events.

After taking the quiz, he shamefully yet apologetically appeared before me to share that he only got one question wrong. It was The question – the only question – he knew would boil my blood: “There are nine justices on the Supreme Court. How many are women?” With gaping mouth and sad eyes I turned to him and, before I could ask, he replied “Sotomayor. I forgot about Sotomayor.” [Audible sigh…]

His admission, and the recognition of which Justice he forgot, absolved him but he’s a rarity. Most people, according to the quiz, do not know there are three female justices. This is bad. What is surprising and troubling is the percentage of people who got that question wrong (33%) compared to the number of people who correctly identified other questions, such as this one, that were seemingly way more challenging:

Keystone pipe Q

73% correctly identified it as the geographic line demarcating where the proposed Keystone Pipeline will be built.

Or this question, about a graph that asks one to simply identify what national trend you think it’s reflecting:

Economy graph

72% got this one correct! Clearly I underestimate the brevity of knowledge people have about economic and environmental trends. Good on you, informed Americans.

But what accounts for the continuation of a general lack of knowledge about the third branch of government? For years the joke has been Americans can name more Stooges and Fresh Princes than branches and Justices. Hasn’t exposure to news via web media – the great democratizing and educational tools we spend 5.6 hours a day using – made a dent in this civic deficiency? Maybe it falls back on me and other teachers who need to do a better job teaching the Supreme Court and lady justices. Or maybe I should just remind myself that people just love to hate the Court or remain committed to keeping SCOTUS in their cultural and civic blind spots. Either way… Blerg.

Tell it, Liz Lemon.

*I crushed it. Scored 12 out of 12.

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26 thoughts on “Public perception and the SCOTUS: Love to hate it or “Meh…””

  1. Civics literacy is abysmal in this country but it’s the apathy towards it that is truly tragic. I have no doubt there is a direct correlation between dependency and apathy. I also believe there is a direct correlation between civics literacy and self-reliance. One more correlation, if the state forces dependence on the independent or independence on the dependent, apathy declines and their respective civics literacy will determine where they look to restore their “freedom”.

    1. Olly – Social Studies, including Civics is being overlooked because English and Math are where the high-stakes tests are. If they gave high-stakes tests in Social Studies, you would see the literacy go way up. 😉

  2. PAUL C. SCHULTE…I miss Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments, where he’d quiz people on history/current events.
    I don’t think he was necessarily “cherry picking” for the most ignorant people. There just seems to be a lot if really uninformed people who were often stumped by the most basic history questions.
    I have several appointments in E. Mesa and A.J. tomorrow and Wed.
    If it’s convenient, give me a call and we’ll meet for coffee or lunch. I sent you my phone #s and email address via a Facebook message.

  3. It would be a great thing if there were more diversity on the court. Fewer people from the North East. Fewer people from elite Ivy League colleges. Fewer Lawyers.

    I don’t see why only lawyers or law professors should be on the court. They used to appoint politicians like Hugo Black and William Howard Taft. But I don’t think you need to limit to lawyers. Any reasonably intelligent citizen should have a chance to be on the court. Scientists. Economists. Businessmen. People who bring real life experience to the table instead of memorizing the crap in dusty old law books. The court should be comprised of engaged and able citizens first instead of just lawyers.

  4. “… in regards to the gay marriage decision, I already have been blaming the three women on the court.”
    Of course you have David.

  5. I only missed one. I didn’t know who the Muslim woman was.

    It is really appalling how little people actually know about the world, politics and things that are of real importance to our lives and security.

    The issues that are before the Supreme Court at this time seem to me to be of very high importance. To not know WHO the Justices are and to not be interesting in following these issues is unfathomable to me.

    1. DBQ – newspaper readership is WAAAAAY down and most people get their news, if they get any, from the TV. No wonder they don’t know s**t.

  6. Nick…I’ve generally known the names of all nine justices since college…I graduated in 1971.
    Really enjoyed constitutional law classes.
    …very few attorneys really deal with major con law issues in their practices.
    I’ve brushed up on 4th Amendment (search and seizure) issues in the past year. ROSEEN V. IDAHO and my own multiple stops/K-9 search were motivating factors.
    This Roseen lawsuit is dragging on forever….not sure how far it will go, or of the ultimate outcome.
    It was somewhat surprising to me to see just how far the Supremes have gone in trashing 4th Amendment protections.
    When you open that door that wide, there will unfortunately be some jurisdictions ( like Idaho) that feel free to do Inspector Clousseau-like random stops/searches.
    Tempe AZ., where I generally spent several months a year, has a superb PD. Probably as good as I’ve ever seen.
    Idaho is a different matter. I just drove an extra c. 140 miles to bypass that chicken…. state.

  7. Tom, I thought you were joining in the tenor of this post and pretending you thought there were 10 justices. Because, I would be willing to bet, well over half the people in this country do not know how many SC justices there are. I don’t know the last Protestant, O’Connor? Rehnquist?

  8. Dutch van Kirk, the navigator and last surviving member of the Enola Gay, died at age 93 in the summer of 2014.
    He talked about a high school teacher introducing him to an assembly as a “veteran of World War Eleven”.
    Several years ago, in a discussion with a friend re Iranian nuke program, the friend asked “Does America have nuclear weapons”.
    My friend is fairly intelligent, but abysmally ignorant. Graduated at age 16 from high school, product of c. late 1970s public schools.

  9. Fun quiz. History and science garner most of my attention, so I do not consider myself particular active about current events. Despite that, I answered all 12 questions correctly.

    As for my attitude about the court, I consider it a lawless court. They do not seem interested in justice issues and interpreting law as much as transforming the culture to align with their own image.

    I. Annie, in regards to the gay marriage decision, I already have been blaming the three women on the court. Two of them already have officiated a gay marriage, and one of those two made inappropriate comments in a television interview, revealing her vote before even hearing oral arguments. None of them recused themselves for bias. The court has seriously lost its way, subjugating logic to emotions. A big reason for that is appointing touchy feeling women on the court for political reasons, to show support for gender equality. It is because of these women that we already know the outcome ahead of time.

  10. my favorite Poli .Sci classes were always foreign policy and Constitusional LAW.
    I told Mark Coonts, a young lead attorney in Roseen v Idaho, that I kind of envied him. Nor many lawyers really get a con law case that they can “really sink their teeth into.”


  12. If we want smart, we’ll take a run down to the physics department.

    If we want the Preamble, Constitution and Bill of Rights, we’ll read them.

    What we want out of the SCOTUS is to assure that the actions of all three branches of government comport with the literal Preamble, Constitution and Bill of Rights. We want the SCOTUS to end its “overreach” and end it is “legislation from the bench.” Rarely does the English language require “interpretation.”

    The SCOTUS, since Abraham Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus and conducted his unconstitutional “Reign of Terror,” the SCOTUS has been the SINGULAR American failure.

    SCOTUS has lost objectivity and decided ideologically; the greatest American sin.

    The Congress MUST facilitate the constant deterance and use of impeachment.

    Impeachment is the default “check and balance” and America needs it.

  13. All nine went to Harvard or Yale or both. Six of nine are from Jersey, NY or CT. Those six all speak turdy turd and a turd accents. One is from GA. Two from CA. None have ever in their life represented an individual in a criminal jury trial. One or two tried cases on the bench as trial judges. One is a Koch brother– not in name but in deed. Listen to them on CSPAN television during the oral arguments. Coitus interruptus. Read the new book by Chemerinsky. I think the title is The Case Against The Court. There is a recent one by Lawrence Tribe and another by Garrett Epps. They are all interesting books with slightly differing perspectives. Roberts is the worst thing for the country since Roger Taney.

  14. Tom, There was a long time when all justices were Protestant. There are none. 6 Catholics and 3 Jews. I guess Larry has a problem w/ the Catholics, well maybe not Sotomayor. LOL! Self loathing is not good.

  15. I have become almost shock proof regarding Americans lack of knowledge of civics. I don’t think it is a coincidence civics stopped being taught when teacher’s unions came to power. Keep people ignorant of govt. is akin to “keep ’em barefoot and pregnant.” However, just because our public education system has become third world, it is no excuse for ignorance. I taught my kids civics over the supper table. I taught my baseball players civics as we sat on the bench. Baseball is a verbal sport, and bench talk can be a very good way to teach. And, when I taught history, I just incorporated civics into the curriculum.

  16. 6 are Catholic, 3 are Jewish. Can’t remember the last Protestant justice.

  17. I tend to like or dislike the court based on the particular decision. I find I have no liking for any particular justice or disliking. This is because on any particular day each can be an idiot.

  18. Seriously? How could anyone not know there are three female Justices?! Yikes, lol! After their decision in June on same sex marriage, I predict that 90% of the blame will be put on the heads of those three women Justices. I suspect Justice Kagan will be singled out. It will be an interesting time, to say the least.

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