What Supreme Court? Many Americans lack basic Supreme Court knowledge
A sobering new survey of the public's knowledge about its own government shows that fully one third of Americans are unable to name even one of the government's three branches, and just over half believe that the president must follow Supreme Court rulings.
Those findings were contained in survey results released yesterday by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which set out to analyze the public's understanding of the U.S. judiciary and its relationship with the executive and legislative branches, and ended up with a broad indictment of Americans' knowledge of basic civics.
Not only were many of those surveyed clueless about the branches of government, according to the center's director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, but "they also don't understand checks and balances." More than a third of American adults believe that the president is within his rights to ignore Supreme Court rulings if he believes they would impede efforts to protect the country from terrorist attacks.
Jamieson presented the survey's findings at Georgetown University Law Center's "State of the Judiciary" conference, which drew national leaders in law and business, including six of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices. The conference was cochaired by Justice Stephen Breyer and retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
The survey found that the nation's judiciaryin particular, the U.S. Supreme Courtremains the most trusted branch of government, though trust in the high court slid from 75 percent in 2005 to 64 percent this year. The trust level is similar for state courts. But while trust remains high, Jamieson said, "public doubts that the courts are actually impartial, public concern about the role of money in the election of state judges, and public ignorance about the basic constitutional functions served by the Supreme Court are worrisome."
Though 75 percent of those surveyed agreed that the Supreme Court can be trusted to make decisions that are right for the country, the same percentage said they believe judges' rulings are moderately or greatly influenced by their political views. And 62 percent say the courts favor the wealthy or those with political influence. Interestingly, Jamieson said, intimate contact with the courtswhether as jury member or having a family member involved in a court caseincreases suspicion that courtroom decisions are influenced by money and politics.
The Annenberg study served to underscore an emerging theme at the Georgetown conference: the urgent need to bolster civics education in the United States, particularly in the area of checks and balances among the government's three branches. Go online to www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org to read more about the survey.