Supreme Sleight of Hand

Slate's blog on legal issues.
May 22 2008 12:56 PM

Supreme Sleight of Hand

The Rasmussen poll's (un)favorability ratings for individual Supreme Court justices surely intrigue. But how can they be squared with repeated polls indicating Americans don't even know the names of the nine folks on the court?

Consider FindLaw's December 2005 "Supreme Court Awareness Survey," which found that " only 43 percent of American adults can name at least one justice who is currently serving on the nation's highest court," and that fully 57 percent of Americans "can't name any current U.S. Supreme Court justices ."

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Most-named in that polling of 1,000 Americans was the now-retired Sandra Day O'Connor; at 27 percent, she placed six points ahead of the second-place justice, Clarence Thomas. Notwithstanding that the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had taken place just a couple of months earlier, he placed a distant third, at 16 percent. The rest were named as follows: Antonin Scalia, 13 percent; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 12 percent; Anthony M. Kennedy, 7 percent; David H. Souter, 5 percent; and Stephen G. Breyer and John Paul Stevens, tied at 3 percent.

These latter numbers seem entirely plausible. And that calls into question the Rasmussen poll. Let's take Breyer as an example. If only a very small handful of Americans is even aware that someone bearing his name sits on the Supreme Court, what can it possibly mean that, as Rasmussen reports, Breyer has a favorability rating of 18 percent, 10 points below his unfavorability rating of 28 percent?

The most significant numbers in Rasmussen's poll? Twenty-nine to 54. That's the percentage range of persons surveyed who are willing to admit that, even when supplied the name of an individual justice, that they simply haven't a clue what to think about her or him.