Two-Thirds Of Americans Can’t Name A Single Member Of The Supreme Court

If you can name at least one of these people, you know more than two-thirds of your fellow citizens.

According to a new survey from FindLaw, the majority of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court Justice: 

Despite all the recent controversy surrounding U.S. Supreme Court decisions on health care, immigration and other issues, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t name even a single member of the Supreme Court. That’s according to a new national survey by FindLaw.com (www.findlaw.com), the most popular legal information Web site. The survey found that only 34 percent of Americans can name any member of the nation’s highest court.

Chief Justice John Roberts is the most well known of the justices, but could be named by only one in five Americans. Only one percent of Americans can correctly name all nine sitting Justices.

According to the FindLaw survey, the percentage of Americans who can name any U.S. Supreme Court justice are:

  • John Roberts - 20%
  • Antonin Scalia - 16%
  • Clarence Thomas - 16%
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg - 13%
  • Sonia Sotomayor - 13%
  • Anthony Kennedy - 10%
  • Samuel Alito - 5%
  • Elena Kagan - 4%
  • Stephen Breyer - 3%

Law Professor, and former Federal Court law clerk, Josh Blackman is happy to be in that rarified 1% of people who can name every member of the Court, as can I, while Jonathan Turley laments the news:

Of course, roughly half of people polled last year could not name a single GOP candidate for presidentForty one percent cannot name the current vice president of the United States.

We do even worse on international questions or trying to define the bill of rights.

There is a serious problem in this country, as I have previously discussed, with the lack of civics training in schools. It is a dangerous thing for citizens to be not just ignorant but detached from their political system. All governments love the uninformed and passive citizen but it makes for a dangerous void in accountability in this country.

Unfortunately, we are proving de Tocqueville correct in saying that “in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.

There was an identical FindLaw poll conducted two years ago on the eve of Elana Kagan’s elevation to the High Court, and the results were almost completely identical. As in this new poll, two-thirds of respondents could not name a single member of the Supreme Court, and only 1% could name all nine members of the Court.  The responses for individual Justices were slightly different in that Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Sonia Sotomayor, who had been confirmed just a year previously, were in the top three while Antonin Scalia was all the way down at fifth place. Once again, though, poor Stephen Breyer was dead last with only 3% of respondents being about to identify him. The results, then were largely the same with the exception that Roberts and Scalia are apparently slightly better known to the public than they were two years ago. Given their roles in the high profile cases that were handed down in June, along with Justice Scalia’s media appearances in connection with the publication of his latest book, that’s somewhat understandable. People can identify them more because they’ve been mentioned in the press frequently in recent months.

The other point that likely explains what Turley seems to denounce as appallingly bad public knowledge is the simple fact that the Court issues its rules as a collective group so it’s rare that an individual Justice becomes the focus of public attention is rather rare.Chief Justice Roberts became the subject of discussion in June because of what many considered his surprising decision to vote to up hold the Affordable Care Act, but for the most part how a particular Justice has voted in a particular case is something that fades quickly from the public mind. The only people who really pay attention to that are the lawyers who have made arguing before the Supreme Court a career. Combine that with the fact that the lack of cameras during Court proceedings creates an air of detachment between the public and the Court that doesn’t exist for other Government positions (although I’d hazard a guess that very few people could name every member of the Senate or House of Representatives either).

This is similar to other polls we’ve seen on the judiciary in recent years. Around the same time as that original FindLaw poll, another poll found that Americans didn’t really have a good idea of what it was the Supreme Court does, believing it handled far more abortion and free speech cases than it actually does for example. More broadly, it’s clear that even people in the know tend to view the Court through a partisan lens that doesn’t really provide an accurate view of how things work on the Court.

Is this a problem? I’m not entirely sure that it is, at least not to the extent that Turley seems to think that it is. On some level, people know what they need to know about the Supreme Court. Yea, it would be nice if more people could name at least one Supreme Court Justice, but the fact that they cannot isn’t necessary a sign of the end of the Republic.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. rodney dill says:

    For some reason Breyer is the one that escapes me. The rest I can name, at least by last name.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, Gollum, Bilbo, Dobby, Rumsfeld and Doc. There you go. From memory.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    My favorite is still the 2010 poll in which 8% of Americans said Thurgood Marshal was the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (He passed away in ’93, but what a name, right?)

  4. al-Ameda says:

    None of this is surprising at all. Most people do not know the names of the Supreme Court Justices because, in terms of every day life, most Americans are pretty far removed from the effects of the decisions of the court as they are made. Look at the recent ACA and Robert’s decision to uphold it. The fact is people are not yet experiencing the effects of ACA so while the media was blaring ‘Roberts Roberts Roberts’ the public was hearing “Obama Care”. For most people, the effect of a Supreme Court decision is generally very indirect and often delayed too.

    I’m sure the polling would be similar if you asked people to identify the Bill of Rights’ Amendments – most people would get the First and Second, maybe the Fifth – after that, probably zero.

    Also, I am convinced that 2/3rd of the people could not locate North America on a labeled map of the continents.

  5. CSK says:

    Son of a gun, I’m a One Percenter. Probably for the first and last time.

  6. Ben says:

    @rodney dill:

    Ditto, the other 8 come to me immediately, but I always say Souter instead of Breyer. I don’t know why I can’t get it through my head that he retired.

    But all things considered, even that is pretty damned good compared to most people I guess.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @rodney dill:

    For some reason Breyer is the one that escapes me. The rest I can name, at least by last name.

    Same here. I had all the others but Kagan immediately, but even with her I could see her face but couldn’t find her name among the hollow confines of my skull for a few minutes.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Is this a problem? I’m not entirely sure that it is, at least not to the extent that Turley seems to think that it is. On some level, people know what they need to know about the Supreme Court. Yea, it would be nice if more people could name at least one Supreme Court Justice, but the fact that they cannot isn’t necessary a sign of the end of the Republic.

    While I think Turley sometimes displays a little bit of Chicken Little Syndrome, I find myself more in agreement with him here. I would have to say that if 2/3s of Americans can’t name a single Justice, that is a sign that they know very little to nothing at all about the Supreme Court. Now, it might be true that they don’t need to know anything about the SC in the strictest sense, but it sure would be nice if they were at the very least aware of the almost certain fact that whoever wins in November will be selecting at least one Justice, maybe more.

  9. george says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Now, it might be true that they don’t need to know anything about the SC in the strictest sense, but it sure would be nice if they were at the very least aware of the almost certain fact that whoever wins in November will be selecting at least one Justice, maybe more.

    A lot of folks still don’t see the SC as being primarily political – which of course would be the ideal situation. I see it on the order of how many people knowing the name of their city or town chief of police (come to think of it, that’s probably pretty high in small towns, if only because everyone knows everyone).

    In Canada, the SC has so far remained reaonably unpoliticized, though the court here is as powerful as in the USA. And I’d guess, perhaps because of that, the number of people who can name even a single member of the Canadian supreme court is considerably less than in the US – I can’t name a single one off-hand). Maybe the fact that so many people don’t feel they have to know the names of its members in the US is a good sign – it means that wonks aside, people don’t feel its as political as the parties suggest.

  10. Anderson says:

    Now that Souter’s gone, there aren’t any single Justices, are there?

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Anderson:

    Now that Souter’s gone, there aren’t any single Justices, are there?

    Kagan.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @george:

    Maybe the fact that so many people don’t feel they have to know the names of its members in the US is a good sign – it means that wonks aside, people don’t feel its as political as the parties suggest.

    Possibly George, but my money is that these aren’t low information voters, but no information people in general.

  13. EddieInCA says:

    I, too, missed Breyer. He’s the one I always forget. I want to think Stevens is still on the court, for some reason.

  14. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Hell, this is nothing. Somewhere around 20% of Zombieland can’t find the U.S. on a map of the world. Seriously. All part and parcel of the big slide.

    Probably the greatest irony, of course, is that public sector K-12 teachers are so lacking in so many areas, and are so blindly partisan, they could read this story and yet still not be able even to grasp the political ironies.

  15. al-Ameda says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Probably the greatest irony, of course, is that public sector K-12 teachers are so lacking in so many areas, and are so blindly partisan, they could read this story and yet still not be able even to grasp the political ironies.

    Wow, conservatives are the single most self-proclaimed victims in America today. How did you guys survive Kindergarten nap time? I mean, with all those socialist teachers trying to populate your dreams with images of LaGuardia and FDR, it must have been a nightmare.

  16. superdestroyer says:

    Considering that the Supreme Court could be irrelevant in the coming one party state, maybe people are correct in not paying any attention to the Supreme Court. From immigration, to homosexual marriage, or environment regulation, the Obama Administration has shown that it does not really care what the law says.

    All the Supreme Court will do in the future is to remove the teeth from criminal laws and give those in power the ability to overcome any form of initiative, referendum, or local push to challenge those in power.