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June 3, 2010

A helpful reminder that Americans don't know much about SCOTUS members

A great old Sam Cooke song came to mind as I read this press release reporting on the lack of knowledge of who is on the US Supreme Court.  (Hat Tip: The Volokh Conspiracy.)  Here are the basics, with a fitting comment from a lawprof:

Nearly two-thirds of Americans cannot name any members of the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a new national survey by FindLaw.com, the most popular legal information website.  Even as Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan awaits Senate confirmation hearings to replace retiring justice John Paul Stevens, only 35 percent of Americans can name even one member of the nation's highest court.

Clarence Thomas is the most well known justice but could be named by only 19 percent of Americans.  Chief Justice John Roberts was named by 16 percent of people.  Sonia Sotomayor, the newest justice, could be named by only 15 percent of Americans following a highly visible nomination and confirmation process last year....

In addition, many Americans think that retired justices Sandra Day O'Connor and David Souter are still active members of the Supreme Court.  O'Connor and Souter retired from the Court in 2006 and 2009, respectively.

"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."

I think it is safe to assume that knowledge about the Supreme Court and its members would increase somewhat (though perhaps not that much) if the Justices were to allow oral arguments to be broadcast.  I am hopeful (though not all that optimistic) that some of the newer Justices will make a push to have SCOTUS arguments televised or otherwise publicly available in real time.

June 3, 2010 at 09:35 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I'm not surprised to see Breyer at 3%. I don't know why, but when I'm running through the list in my head, he's also the one I have the most difficulty remembering.

I also suspect people know the sphinx-like Clarence Thomas more because of Anita Hill and the coke can episode than any judicial opinions he's associated with.

Televised oral arguments would absolutely help with this, not because lots of people would watch them but because TV news would run excerpts.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 3, 2010 10:19:46 AM

Why do oral arguments need to be televised? It's not American Idol. The deliberative process of the third branch, including trials and oral argument, should remain public without descending into pop culture. It's bad enough when DC gets thick with feckless herds of pro-lifers, pro-choicers, or other such groups fueled by the popular media when "controversial" cases get heard.

Do we really need to have edited video snippets of Scalia yukking it up from the dias on CNN between toilet cleaner commercials and Anderson Cooper's breathy, sophmoric opinion on the Constitution?

I think not.

Allowing cameras in court is just one more step down the abyss to the America depicted in "Idiocracy".

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | Jun 3, 2010 10:21:25 AM

Why do oral arguments need to be televised?

I don’t know that they need to be televised, but the Founders clearly envisioned that courtroom proceedings would be open to the public. Anyone who wants to see “Scalia yukking it up,” as you put it, can come to the Court in person, wait in line for hours, and get one of the few seats available on any given day. Televising arguments would merely make a resource that is already open to the public, but so scarce that few can take advantage of it, available to all.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jun 3, 2010 10:34:55 AM

Hey Ferris, in the wake of the recent SCOTUS oral argument in which the Justices apparently did not know how texting worked, maybe the work of SCOTUS would be a bit more current if the Justices became a bit more a part of pop culture. And, if you have a problems with helping the "feckless herds" get access to the workings of our third branch government, you probably have an even bigger problem with those herds have a right to vote on who serves in the other branches.

I still believe sunlight is the best disinfectant, and thus I will always favor out government institutions being subject to more sunlight.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 3, 2010 10:41:56 AM

Most of the arguments are boring. The issues can be exciting, at least to people who tend to read this blog, but the arguments aren't. The quality of the advocacy isn't what you'd hope either. And they can be hard to hear from rear section where the spectators sit.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 3, 2010 11:56:44 AM

Prof., That's a nice theory but in practice the introduction of the media more directly into the workings of the Court will engender more out-of-context "news" moments like Alito's unfortunate mouthing of "not true" at the State of the Union rather than aiding in the endumacation of the bovine electorate.

Further, if you think that anyone other than us nerds here care about seeing Scalia amuse himself with his own jokes on video rather than live (or on audio), I think you're over-estimating the public interest in judicial matters a little. I imagine the number of people interested in seeing an oral argument on video is somewhere well below those that would like to see Lindsay Lohan's DWI video and just slightly above those that'd want to see a videotaped class on sentencing policy.

You also seem to be under the impression that video will somehow make the press coverage of the Court better in some way - that's supported by what exactly? C-Span captures hours upon hours of the workings of the other two branches, and the only time that resource is of value is for comic relief:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xkbhidoEe0

While I can see the benefit of taking video of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and syncing her with the audio of "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia" or editing video of Clarence Thomas so that he asks a question (wha-cha! Supreme Court zing!), I'm not sure that "adds value" in a civics sense to our republic.

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | Jun 3, 2010 12:48:03 PM

If the public knew more, they would be angry at the Court. It is outrageous, unlawful, and in insurrection against the constitution, especially Article I Section 1.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 4, 2010 7:00:34 AM

hmm

"Why do oral arguments need to be televised?

I don’t know that they need to be televised, but the Founders clearly envisioned that courtroom proceedings would be open to the public. Anyone who wants to see “Scalia yukking it up,” as you put it, can come to the Court in person, wait in line for hours, and get one of the few seats available on any given day. Televising arguments would merely make a resource that is already open to the public, but so scarce that few can take advantage of it, available to all.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jun 3, 2010 10:34:55 AM"


Works for me. That is after all the whole reason they said it was PERFECTLY LEGAL to plaster ex sex offenders names, address, photo's and WHOLE LIFE HISTORY across the world via the internet.

It's just making PUBLIC INFORMATION EASIER to access.

This would be the same thing.

If it's not legal here. WHY THERE.

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 4, 2010 11:08:22 AM

Thank you very much for the very informative post!

Now I know, I've learned about SCOTUS members :) I'm wondering what SCOTUS are, you really lighten up my mind.

Keep posting :)

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