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Thinking About the Supreme Court: The Next Nominee

President Bush could soon make one of the momentous decisions of his presidency: the selection of a Supreme Court justice. What does the United States think? [IMGCAP(1)]

In a Nov. 3-5 AP/Ipsos Public Affairs poll, a plurality of 37 percent of registered voters said they were very comfortable that Bush would nominate the “right kind of justice to the Supreme Court.” Another 22 percent were somewhat comfortable, 12 percent were not too comfortable, and 29 percent were not at all comfortable.

A late-June early-July Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey of registered voters produced similar results. In that poll, 32 percent were very comfortable with Bush selecting the next nominee “given President Bush’s appointments in other areas,” 27 percent were somewhat comfortable, 14 percent were somewhat uncomfortable and 20 percent were very uncomfortable.

A number of previous polls have assessed Bush’s approach to Supreme Court nominations.

A national poll by Quinnipiac University taken in late February and early March 2003 found that 59 percent of respondents thought the president should “only consider legal qualifications and background when he chooses the next nominee.” The poll found that 34 percent said the president also should consider how the nominee might vote on major issues the Supreme Court decides.

In the same poll, 26 percent said it was very important for the president to nominate a woman to the court. Roughly the same number said it was very important for him to nominate someone who was black (24 percent) or Hispanic (23 percent).

A September 2004 poll from AP/Ipsos found that 20 percent wanted the next nominee to the court to have political views that are very conservative, 36 percent wanted a nominee who was somewhat conservative, 28 percent wanted someone who was somewhat liberal, and 9 percent desired a justice who was very liberal.

Federalism, Original Intent and Abortion. An ABC News poll from June 2003 found that 56 percent of respondents thought the next person appointed to the court should be someone who favors giving state governments more authority than the federal government. By contrast, only 31 percent wanted that person to give the federal government more authority than the states.

The ABC News and Quinnipiac polls produced different snapshots of views on original intent, which suggests that the public doesn’t know — and hasn’t thought — much about it.

ABC found that 60 percent of respondents said the nominee should try to follow the original intentions of the authors of the Constitution, while 34 percent said he should follow an interpretation of what the Constitution means in current times.

The Quinnipiac poll, which had a different emphasis, found that 39 percent said the court should only consider the original intentions of the authors of the document, while 54 percent said the court should consider changing times and current realities in applying the principles of the Constitution.

On abortion, 61 percent in the November 2004 AP/Ipsos poll said Bush should nominate justices who would uphold Roe v. Wade, while 34 percent favored justices who would overturn it. In June 2003, an ABC News poll found that 50 percent of respondents said the next nominee should be someone who thinks abortion should be legal, while 43 percent said it should be someone who thinks abortion should be illegal.

In a late June-early July 2003 poll by Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, 15 percent of respondents said it was acceptable for a Senator to base his or her vote on the nominee solely on the nominee’s position on abortion. By contrast, 72 percent said this was unacceptable. In the ABC poll, 73 percent said the next nominee should state his or her position on abortion publicly, while 23 percent said he or she should not.

The Court. Pollsters also have taken the public’s pulse on the high court generally. In 2003, 47 percent of respondents told Gallup that they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the court. Views of the court have been stable since the late 1990s, though there is evidence in Gallup’s data suggesting that the public’s views are more politically driven now than they were than in the past.

In 1979, 46 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans rated the court highly. In 1999, 58 percent of Democrats — compared to 46 percent of Republicans — did.

Then, in 2001 — in the wake of the contentious Bush v. Gore decision — those numbers flipped. In the 2001 poll, 46 percent of Democrats rated the court highly, compared to 61 percent of Republicans.

This pattern held once again in 2003, as 42 percent of Democrats rated the court highly compared to 56 percent of Republicans who did so.

Since 1991, Gallup has been asking people whether the court is too liberal, too conservative or just about right. In 1991, 20 percent said it was too liberal, 39 percent just about right and 25 percent too conservative. In 2003, those responses were 31 percent too liberal, 39 percent just about right and 25 percent too conservative.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.

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