Maxwell Poll: Partisan politics colors Americans’ view of U.S. courts
Amid the partisan debate that has erupted following the nomination of Harriet Miers to be an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, a new national poll shows that Americans are sensitive to the effect of partisan politics on the job that judges at all levels perform. According to the results of the latest Maxwell Poll(http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/news/MaxwellPoll.pdf) from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Americans believe politicians, the media and even judges themselves share some of the responsibility for the level of influence that in some way shapes judicial decisions.
The Maxwell Poll found that an overwhelming majority of Americans, 85 percent, think that the partisan background of judges bears influence on court decisions. Other poll results reveal that Americans are cognizant of where they see external pressures on the courts taking shape. Respondents indicated that politicians should not intrude further on the work of the courts, with 54 percent saying that judges should not be more accountable to elected officials. Nearly 56 percent admitted that they do not believe judges when they insist their decisions are based on a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Respondents also pointed the finger at the media, with nearly 67 percent considering coverage of the courts to be skewed by a focus on the judge’s partisan background.
Remarkably, despite all of the political influences on the court, an equally significant number of respondents (73 percent) indicated that judges should be shielded from outside pressures and should be allowed to make decisions based upon their reading of the law.
“The results of the Maxwell Poll would seem to suggest that political leaders have selectively adopted elements of public opinion that fit with their agendas,” says Professor Keith J. Bybee of the Maxwell School. “The poll bears out that, in significant numbers, Republicans and Democrats alike equally support the principle of an independent judiciary. The partisan divide on the courts may not be as deep as the political parties would have us believe.”
Bybee points out that Americans are not without some degree of conflict in their views about the courts either. The poll results also indicated that by a slim margin, 47 percent to 44 percent, respondents believe that the courts are out of step with mainstream America. Yet, when it comes to where they prefer top conflicts to be resolved, a majority (55 percent) responded that the courts are the correct venue.
“There are competing interests here,” Bybee says. “Clearly, the public demands impartiality in the decisions that judges render from the bench. Yet simultaneously, they are also stressing that their satisfaction with the courts is based in part on the courts’ ability to produce results they can agree with.”
With Supreme Court nominations driving much of the attention on the courts in recent months, the Maxwell Poll sought to measure the public’s faith in the federal judicial appointment process. While a large majority of respondents (67 percent) indicated that they trust the president and Congress to select quality candidates for the bench, a closer look at responses by party faithful revealed that Democrats do not currently share the same confidence as Republicans. Forty-six percent of Republicans say they have a lot of faith in the president and Congress to carry out the process, while just five percent of Democrats do. In fact, 46 percent of Democrats admitted they have “not much faith at all.”
The new Maxwell Poll was released as more than two dozen nationally recognized experts met to explore key challenges facing an independent judiciary in a Washington, D.C., symposium. “Bench Press: The Collision of Media, Politics, Public Pressure and an Independent Judiciary” was held recently to examine the process, debate and discussion surrounding the appointment of judges, with a focus on Supreme Court nominations. “Bench Press” was a collaborative effort of SU’s College of Law, Maxwell School and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
The Maxwell Poll is run by the Maxwell School’s Campbell Public Affairs Institute. The poll was conducted during early October.