Most people expect the White House to start leaking the name of Barack Obama’s next nominee to the Supreme Court today in order for it to dominate the Sunday news shows — and to stop discussion of the Gulf oil spill and the botched attack on Times Square. Most people also expect that Obama will check off a couple of demographic boxes when making his pick, whether that means ethnicity, gender, religion, or even college, as some people are complaining that the court has become too Harvard-heavy. But what do the American people want from the next justice? As Gallup discovers, they mainly just care about performance, and have a particular approach in mind:
The majority of Americans say it doesn’t matter to them whether President Obama nominates a Protestant to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the only Protestant now on the court. As has been the case with previous vacancies, a majority of Americans say the same about a potential minority or female nominee. …
Respondents in Gallup’s May 3-6 survey were reminded that when Justice Stevens resigns, “none of the eight remaining Supreme Court justices will be of a Protestant religion.” Even with this direct statement, only 7% of those interviewed said it was essential that the new justice be a Protestant, while another 22% said it was a good idea, but not essential, and 66% said it didn’t matter. …
The 24% of Americans who say it is essential or a good idea that the next justice be a woman is slightly lower than the 32% who responded in similar fashion in a Gallup poll conducted last May — before Obama announced Sotomayor as his nominee. It is possible that the slight decrease in sentiment in favor of a female nominee reflects the fact that with Sotomayor’s confirmation, the court now includes two female justices.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans just don’t care about demographics. Gallup offered five responses in their survey: essential, good idea but not essential, doesn’t matter, bad idea, and no opinion. No demographic category got above 7% for essential, and none got above 22% for good idea. At the same time, no demographic got below 66% for “doesn’t matter,” and that was for Protestants:
What Americans do want is a justice that will turn the court in a conservative direction. That was also true last year when Obama picked Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter, and is even more true now than when George Bush had to replace Sandra Day O’Connor in 2005. Forty-two percent want a more conservative court, compared to 27% who want a more liberal court and 24% who want the status quo. To be fair, the status quo with Stevens is liberal enough, but the desire for conservatives on the Supreme Court has only gotten stronger since Obama got elected.
With these mandates in mind, Obama would do best to ignore the demographics and pick a conservative jurist, or at least a bona-fide moderate. He won’t, of course, but the next-best thing he could do would be to avoid bragging about diversity on the court when he announces his decision. Only a handful of Americans give a damn about diversity as an end unto itself; we’re much more interested in performance and qualification.
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