What do the following have in common? Alito, Breyer, Ginsburg, Kennedy ... If you said they are but four of the current nine justices of the United States Supreme Court, not only would you be correct, you would be one of only 35% of Americans who can name even one member of the sitting Court.
According to a new national survey by FindLaw.com, the most popular legal information website, only small percentages of Americans were able to name the various justices and only 1% could correctly name all nine. Despite her recent and highly visible confirmation hearings, the nation's first Latina justice, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, could be correctly identified by only 15% of those polled. The numbers for the remaining justices broke down like this:
- Clarence Thomas - 19%
- John Roberts (Chief Justice) - 16%
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg - 13%
- Antonin Scalia - 10%
- Samuel Alito - 8%
- John Paul Stevens - 8%
- Anthony Kennedy - 6%
- Stephen Breyer - 3%
The FindLaw.com survey was conducted using a demographically balanced telephone survey of 1,000 American adults and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 percent.
Despite the low numbers, not all experts see a cause for alarm. "This result is not especially surprising nor, by itself, should it be alarming," said Michael C. Dorf, a former Supreme Court clerk who currently teaches constitutional law at Cornell University Law School and authors a legal column for FindLaw. "Even though Supreme Court rulings can have a major impact on contentious issues such as the death penalty, abortion rights, discrimination and environmental protection, the Court issues its rulings as a collective body. After their 15 minutes before the Senate Judiciary Committee are up, Supreme Court justices rarely appear on television. What is a source for concern are polls consistently showing that many Americans are unfamiliar with basic features of our constitutional system."
Perhaps Professor Dorf has hit on the issue which could change Americans' familiarity with this branch of the government whose every decision impacts lives. There has been ongoing and lively debate for years over the idea of permitting TV cameras at the Supreme Court. This could allow an everyday view of the inner workings of this part of government, much like CSPAN covers Congress. On the whole, the justices have been opposed to the idea. Recently retired Justice David Souter was even famous for saying he would allow cameras in the Court "over his dead body."
Fortunately, such extreme measures won't be necessary. His replacement, Justice Sotomayor, is known to be more open to the idea of cameras and might have a chance to change the minds of her fellow justices. If access to the highest Court in the country was opened in this way, maybe more of us would be able to name as many justices as can name the Yankee's starting line up. Um.... Derek Jeter?
- Supreme Court of the United States (FindLaw's LawBrain)
- A Unanimous Supreme Court Decision on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act Highlights Ongoing Divisions Over Legislative History (Michael Dorf, FindLaw's Writ)
- Update: Supreme Court Blocks Cameras in Courtroom for Prop 8 (FindLaw's Decided)
- This Bench Belongs in a Dugout (New York Times, Sidebar Blog)