Yeesh: Just 43% can name a single justice on the Supreme Court

An hors d’oeuvre from C-SPAN to whet your appetite for tomorrow’s Gorsuch hearing. On the one hand, 43 percent may well reflect a relatively high degree of public awareness compared to most of American history. (The number was slightly higher in 2015, likely due to a small percentage being able to name Scalia back then as a current member of the Court.) How many working-class people, with little time or money to devote to a daily newspaper, would have had regular access to Court news in the days before TV, especially before 24/7 cable news TV and the Internet?

On the other hand, every member of the current Court has been there at least six years. Six of the current eight have been there more than 10 years. There have been several splashy landmark rulings in recent memory, starting with the Court upholding ObamaCare and striking down state gay-marriage bans coast to coast. You would think, given all of that, we could crack 50 percent awareness at this point. And yet:

If I understand this table correctly, the percentages for each justice reflect the share who offered them as the first name that came to mind when asked to identify a current member of the Court, not the share who recognized them when their name was mentioned. In other words, it’s not that a mere 16 percent recognize Ruth Bader Ginsburg or that zero percent(!) recognize Stephen Breyer. It’s that 16 percent volunteered Ginsburg when asked to name someone whereas no one volunteered Breyer. Which makes sense: Breyer has been less outspoken politically than “the Notorious RBG,” so when progressives get a gut-check question in which they’re asked to name a justice, thoughts turn to her first. On the conservative side, Roberts leads the pack likely for no better reason than that he’s the chief justice. When you hear the phrase “the Roberts Court” enough times, that name will stick. The real surprise on the list, I think, is Anthony Kennedy. He’s been the most influential justice among the Supremes for years and wrote the decision legalizing gay marriage — and just one percent name him first when asked to identify a justice? Huh.

Fully 57 percent whiffed on naming even a single member. As for the Court’s soon-to-be newest member, surely the loads of media coverage that Neil Gorsuch has received lately have blown his public profile sky high, right? Well…

Again, that’s in response to an open-ended question asking people to name Trump’s SCOTUS nominee, not to a question that might jog people’s memory like “Do you know who Neil Gorsuch is?” Barely a quarter of the country has paid enough attention to the nomination so far to identify Gorsuch — even though, in response to a different question, fully 82 percent said that the issue of Supreme Court appointments was important to their vote last year. The most striking commonality between the two tables above is how paltry the numbers are among Americans under the age of 35. Just 19 percent of that group was able to name Gorsuch and a mere 27 percent was able to name any justice among the current members. Almost as surprising, just 26 percent of Republicans were able to recall Gorsuch’s name when asked who Trump’s nominee was. You can understand Democratic ignorance about this as a product of disaffection, having tuned out of the nomination process due to disdain towards Trump, but Republicans should be excited about Gorsuch.

One mitigating factor here, though, is that Americans seem to be mindful of their ignorance. When asked whether they hear too much or too little about the “workings” of the Court, 43 percent said “too little” versus 53 percent who said “just right.” Only four percent said “too much.” And when asked if there should be cameras in the Court to televise oral arguments — the surest way to increase public interest in a multimedia age — support was overwhelming:

Among the under-35 set, support for courtroom cameras is at 83 percent, the highest of the four age groups tested. The public generally loves this idea. Go back up to the first table above, though, and you’ll see that people who were able to name at least one current justice actually disfavor camera in the courtroom, 41/51. There’a a civic consideration here, namely, that if you put oral arguments on TV, the lawyers — and some of the justices — will be tempted to granstand. People who follow the Court closely enough to be able to name at least one justice are sensitive to that. The larger public either isn’t as sensitive or thinks transparency is worth the risk of grandstanding.

One last bit of data: The public doesn’t like Trump criticizing sitting judges. When asked if it’s appropriate or not, they split 42/57.

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