In January, FindLaw released the results of its most recent Supreme Court Awareness survey, a simple survey asking respondents to name the nine Supreme Court justices. At least one other blog (CrimProf) has posted the results, but it is useful to view the new results alongside past ones. I am aware of two other similar surveys, Findlaw's first Supreme Court Awareness survey in 2003 and Luntz Research's Three Stooges/Supreme Court survey in 1995.
Together, these three surveys reveal a fairly stable level of knowledge--or perhaps a stable lack of knowledge. Over half the population cannot name even a single sitting Supreme Court justice. Of those who can name one or more justices, the results are largely consistent in all three surveys. O'Connor was the most well-known in all three; Stevens and Breyer were the least well known. And although Thomas appears less well-known now than in 1995, most of the remaining variation in the surveys is likely within the range of sampling error. (Scalia may be slightly more well known now than in 1995.) One major difference in the December 2005 survey is that Chief Justice Roberts was a correct answer, not Rehnquist. But despite Roberts' confirmation in September and all of the media coverage that went along with it, only 16% could recall his name by December.
Here are the results:
8/1995 6/2003 12/2005
O'Connor 31% O'Connor 25% O'Connor 27%
Thomas 30% Thomas 21% Thomas 21%
Rehnquist 8% Rehnquist 10% Roberts 16%
Ginsburg 7% Ginsburg 9% Scalia 13%
Scalia 6% Scalia 9% Ginsburg 12%
Souter 4% Souter 4% Kennedy 7%
Kennedy 4% Kennedy 4% Souter 5%
Breyer 1% Breyer 2% Breyer 3%
Stevens 1% Stevens 1% Stevens 3%
zero 55% zero 65% zero 57%
one 16% one+ 35% one+ 43%
n=1200 n=1000 n=1000
While the specific ability to rattle off Supreme Court justices is not particularly important in and of itself, the public's poor performance in these surveys is a good indication that little is known about the Court in general. As for the Stooges, however, public knowledge appears more robust. In the 1995 survey, 67% of respondents could name three or more of the Stooges. Only 13% failed to name any. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any more recent Stooge data.
1995 Survey: Joan Biskupic, Has the Court Lost Its Appeal?, Washington Post, Oct. 12, 1995, at A23; Richard Morin, Unconventional Wisdom, Washington Post, Oct. 8, 1995, at C5.
Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, and Curly Joe. (And Joe Besser?)