The Invisible Court

  • August 03, 2010

If the Senate confirms Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court, she will join an institution that for the public is largely out of sight and out of mind. While legal scholars analyze Kagan's possible impact on the "Roberts court," most Americans have no idea who "Roberts" is. In Pew Research's latest political knowledge quiz, just 28% correctly identified John Roberts as chief justice -- from a list that included Harry Reid, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.

Much of the recent debate over the court has centered on whether it has become more conservative since 2006, when Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O'Connor. However, the public sees the court moving in the opposite direction. Currently, as many Americans say the court is conservative as say it is liberal (23% each); in July 2007 more than twice as many viewed the court as conservative than viewed it as liberal (36% vs. 14%).

The public often has little to go on when making judgments about the court and its ideology. The Supreme Court's workings are largely hidden from the public's view; its proceedings are not televised, and sitting justices seldom give interviews. President Obama cast a rare spotlight on the court in his State of the Union address when he condemned the court's decision allowing corporate spending in elections; Roberts later took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the president's broadside.

Read the full report, The Invisible Court on the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Web site.