A recent poll conducted by Findlaw shows that two thirds of Americans cannot name even one Supreme Court justice. Here are the percentages who can name each of the nine current justices [HT: Josh Blackman]:
* Clarence Thomas – 19%
* John Roberts – 16%
* Sonia Sotomayor – 15%
* Ruth Bader Ginsburg – 13%
* Antonin Scalia – 10%
* Samuel Alito – 8%
* John Paul Stevens – 8%
* Anthony Kennedy – 6%
* Stephen Breyer – 3%
Clarence Thomas, the most widely known justice, is relatively more famous in large part because of the Anita Hill sexual harassment charges rather than because of his legal rulings.
The Findlaw survey result is not surprising. The public has strong incentives to be “rationally ignorant” about political and legal issues, and numerous previous surveys show that most are in fact ignorant about very basic facts about both specific policy issues and the structure of the political system. As Cornell law professor Michael Dorf points out in the summary of the poll results linked above:
“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…. What is a source for concern are polls consistently showing that many Americans are unfamiliar with basic features of our constitutional system.”
I agree with Dorf’s statement that knowledge of the justices’ names isn’t particularly important in itself. At the same time, however, ignorance of the names of Supreme Court justices does usually indicate a lack of attention to their rulings. It’s hard to read much about Supreme Court decisions without seeing their names mentioned repeatedly. Moreover, ignorance about specific justices also probably indicates inability to evaluate individual justices’ performance. That, in turn, makes it harder for voters to evaluate presidents and senators based on the justices they nominate and confirm. Assessments of past justices are surely important in determining which party should be trusted with the selection of future ones.
Finally, it’s also worth noting that the public is also ignorant of many basic aspects of the Constitution itself. For example, a 2006 survey found that only 28% of Americans can name two or more First Amendment rights; on the plus side, the same study found that 52% can name two or more characters on the Simpsons. Public ignorance about the justices is joined with an even more troubling ignorance about the document they are supposed to enforce.
UPDATE: I have corrected a mistake in identifying Professor Michael Dorf’s school affiliation, which I at first wrongly listed as Columbia rather than Cornell. I thank VC reader Joshua Mize for pointing out this error.