With Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's Senate confirmation hearing set to start today, she is still an unfamiliar figure to most Americans, according to a poll released Thursday by C-SPAN.
Only 19 percent of those polled could name Kagan when asked the open-ended question "Can you identify the individual just named by President Obama to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court?" By contrast, in a similar poll last year, 43 percent were able to name Sonia Sotomayor, who may have greater name recognition as the first Hispanic nominee in history. Once given Kagan's name, 38 percent said they support her nomination, 30 percent oppose, and 33 percent said they don't care.
If the low level of Kagan awareness can be read as a sign of public ignorance about the nation's highest court, the poll also offers results indicating that the public does not like what it does not know. Only 29 percent of the 1,512 voters polled June 18 thought the Supreme Court is doing an excellent or good job, while 53 percent said it's doing a fair or poor job. The rest said they did not know.
On the bright side for the Court, even with its low approval rating, when asked which of the three branches of government best serves the public interest, 48 percent said it was the judiciary, 27 percent named Congress, and 25 percent said it was the executive branch. Another bit of good news: 47 percent of the public knew that Kagan's confirmation would bring to three the number of women on the Court.
The poll produced interesting results on the recent debate over the need for background and educational diversity among Supreme Court nominees. Told that eight of the current justices graduated from the law schools at Harvard, Columbia and Yale, 63 percent said it would be useful for the next justice to come from a different background. Sixteen percent were OK with more justices from those three schools, and the rest did not care.
But the public seems to care less about finding nominees who have different job experiences. Forty-eight percent said appointing more lower court judges to be justices is OK with them, while 37 percent said a different job background would be useful. The rest don't care.
Conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, the poll suggests the public wants to learn more about the Court; 62 percent said they don't hear enough about the workings of the Court. The poll also asked the perennial question whether the Supreme Court should allow television coverage of oral arguments. Sixty-three percent said yes, and 37 percent said no. Interestingly, 49 percent said that the greater visibility of the Court brought about by camera access would increase respect for the institution, while only 16 percent said it would decrease public respect. The rest said it would stay the same.
As for the confirmation hearings themselves, 68 percent said they had tuned in to at least some part of the Sotomayor hearings last year. Of those who did, only 12 percent of those polled said senators did a very good job of asking questions that get at how a nominee reasons and how he or she would rule. Fifty-two percent gave credit to the Senate for doing an "OK job," while 36 percent gave the Senate bad grades.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.