New Poll Shows Americans Don’t Know Much About The Judiciary

When it comes to the Supreme Court, most Americans have no idea what they're talking about.

With Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings set to begin on Monday, C-SPAN is out with a new poll that shows that the Judiciary remains a mystery to most Americans

For example, when promoted, most of the people surveyed could only name a single case that has been before the Supreme Court

This isn’t too surprising, of course, because it’s only high profile cases like Roe that make their way into the public consciousness, but what about other high-profile cases from recent years like Kelo v. City of New London, or District of Columbia v. Heller ? Both of these cases received a lot of attention from the media and have been the subject of political action since they were handed down, and yet neither shows up in the C-Span survey.

Even more interesting is the public’s perception of the type of cases that the Supreme Court deals with:

As Above The Law points out, the Supreme Court hasn’t dealt with a major abortion case since 1992, and has only heard one other case dealing with the subject in that period, and that was three years ago. The same goes for cases dealing with Freedom of Speech, Church and State, and Affirmative Action. These may be the subject areas that the media focuses on when the Court hands down decision, but the reality is that more of the cases that the Court deals with during a typical term fall into the “other” category than any of the other categories listed in the poll results.

The one that really surprises me, though, is how few people could name the person that President Obama had named to replace Justice John Paul Stevens:

Can this be possible ? Is it really the case that 80% of the public doesn’t know the name of the person who will be sitting before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday morning ? It’s true that much of the press coverage over the past two months has been focused on the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s not like this has been a secret nomination.

And yet, despite all this ignorance, the American public thinks that it’s the Judicial Branch that is best serving the public interest:

This result is, I think, more of a reflection of the public disdain for Congress, the President, and politicians in general than any real confidence in the wisdom of the Judicial Branch.

Political ignorance like this is distressing, but as I noted last month when commenting on a poll that showed that most Americans could not name a single Supreme Court Justice, it’s not surprising:

Outside of confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justices do their work outside the view of the public and even when a controversial or highly publicized decision is issued, it comes from a collective body and is communicated by reporters rather than the Justices themselves. Unlike, say, people who don’t have enough awareness of politics to identity their Federal or state representatives, the fact that large numbers of Americans don’t know who Stephen Breyer or Anthony Kennedy might be is neither surprising or concerning. One imagines that these numbers would change, though, if the Court ever did accept the long-discussed idea of cameras in the courtroom.

On that issue, by the way, a strong majority (63%) of the C-SPAN poll participants support bringing cameras into the Supreme Court.

On the broader point, it’s not at all surprising that Americans are so uninformed about the Supreme Court, which is why I think you see such virulent reactions from the public when the Court comes down with a decision in a politically charged case. Since they most likely weren’t paying attention to the issue to begin with, their reaction to one simple fact — the Court’s decision — is actually going to be stronger than it would be if they’d been aware of the arguments in the case.

I’m not sure if there’s a cure for this either. People are always going to pay more attention to Lady Gaga than the intricacies of Constitutional Law.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. tfr says:

    Yup, and they will get (and deserve) a Lady Gaga government.
    What do we expect? Government-run schools make people dumber and dumber, and more easily controlled.

  2. just me says:

    Actually I am not shocked at all that most people can’t name Kagan as Obama’s current nominee. Outside of poltical blogs I haven’t seen much at all on the nomination in local print news and most of that has been small blurbs.

    Kagan I think is a boring nominee-she really IMO isn’t all that controversial, seems qualified and the media isn’t going to spend much time raking her over the coals because she is liberal and nominated by a liberal replacing a liberal. There just isn’t enough controversy to make media coverage interesting and the media likes salacious and controversy-and Kagan is neither.

    I think the things that surprise me are more people who can’t name a justice-or are unaware of at least some cases over the years. But then I have been aware of SCOTUS issues since Bork was nominated and have been a junkie since the Thomas/Anita Hill hearings.

  3. Of course, you know that you can substitute just about anything for “The Judiciary” in your title.