Tag Archives: Public opinion

The Most Amazing Supreme Court Chart Ever?

About a week ago, columnist for the Washington Post Chris Cillizza posted a piece titled, “The most amazing Supreme Court chart.  Maybe ever.” [1]  Mr. Cillizza said he found the chart on the Pew polling site; the link is in the footnote below.

The chart shows the distribution of responses to a Pew poll question: “Who is the Chief Justice of the United States?”  The chart does not show a pretty picture (pun intended).  Only 28% of respondents could correctly name Chief Justice John Roberts; 53 percent did not know, 8% named the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, 6 percent named recently retired Justice John Paul Stevens, and 4 percent named Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Cillizza’s commentary:

“So, yeah. A majority of people don’t know the name of the Chief Justice of the United States. More frightening? Eight percent named Thurgood Marshall, who not only was never the Chief Justice but also died in 1993. And let’s not even talk about the four percent who think Harry Reid, a Senator not a member of the Supreme Court, is the Chief Justice….

What the above chart proves is that analysis about how what the Court does — whether it’s what they have already done on Citizens United or what they might do with the Affordable Care Act — will impact the political landscape amounts to something close to a guessing game.”

Although Cillizza concedes that the chart illustrates poll results from the summer of 2010, almost two years ago, and that things might have changed since then, those who study the Court and public opinion are often struck by the public’s lack of knowledge about the Court.  It is not uncommon for the justices to go unrecognized—one illustrative anecdote is that tourists outside the Supreme Court asked Justice Stevens to move out of the way so they could take a good picture of that building.  Still, it is worth keeping in mind that just because the public is ignorant about the membership of the Court, it’s not necessarily the case that the public is unaware of the Court’s decisions or that those decisions don’t have effects on public opinion.

Levels of public knowledge regarding Court decisions can be very different, and higher, than knowledge of facts about the Court.  For example, more recent poll results by Time indicate that the majority of the public reports following the major decisions of the Court—69% of the respondents in that poll said that they followed the Court’s decisions either “very” or “somewhat” closely.  An AP-National Constitution Center poll found that 72% of the respondents indicated that the “decisions of the US Supreme Court ha[s] an impact on [their] daily li[ves].”  These findings are consistent with research that shows that the public can be quite aware of the Court’s major decisions.[2]

Not only has research shown that knowledge about the membership of the Court is not the same as awareness of the Court’s decisions, that same research has considered the impact of Supreme Court decisions when the public is aware of them.  The impact of Supreme Court decisions is likely to influence the structure of public opinion, most notably by increasing polarization on highly controversial subjects.  If the individual mandate, requiring everyone to purchase health insurance, is a highly controversial subject, then it’s likely that the Court’s decision will lead to increased polarization of opinion on the issue, regardless of the outcome.


[2] See, for example, Franklin and Kosaki, “The Republican Schoolmaster,” American Political Science Review, vol 83: no. 3 (Sept. 1989): 751-771; Kritzer, “The Impact of Bush v. Gore on Public Perceptions and Knowledge of the Supreme Court,” Judicature, vol. 85: no. 1 (Jul/Aug 2001): 32-38; Scott and Saunders, “Courting Public Opinion: Supreme Court Impact on Public Opinion Reconsidered,” paper presented at the 2006 meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, 2006, http://www.kevinmscott.com/SSmpsa06.pdf, accessed 4/20/2012.

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