Friday, November 20, 2009

Originalism in the American Mind

Nate Persily

(coauthored with Stephen Ansolabehere and crossposted)

Upon the initiative of my colleague Jamal Greene who has been writing about the popularity of originalism, our July survey included several questions concerning judicial methodology. As cautious as we might be generally about measuring opinion on constitutional questions, our concerns about question wording, issue complexity, and non-salience are heightened in this context. Nevertheless, recognizing those limitations, we sought to examine attitudes on several questions concerning interpretive methodology that other polling firms and scholars have asked, as well as some new ones, such as the appropriateness of empathy in Supreme Court decisionmaking.

We began with the following question that has been asked by the Quinnipiac poll for the last six years:

Which comes closer to your point of view?
1) In making decisions, the Supreme Court should only consider the original intentions of the authors of the Constitution.
2) In making decisions, the Supreme Court should consider changing times and current realities in applying the principles of the Constitution.

To be sure, the question framing is unfair to the originalist position, presents a false dichotomy, and has a host of other problems. Nevertheless, the results have been remarkably consistent, the split shows that there is not lopsided support for either option even given the phrasing, and very few people refuse to express an opinion on the question. On average, 42% identify with the “original intentions” option, 51% identify with the “current realities” option, and only 8 percent “don’t know.” (Since 2003, the share supporting the “original intentions” option has ranged from 39% to 44%. Our survey from July found 40% supporting that option.)

Our survey decided to delve further and asked a battery of questions developed by Jim Gibson at Wash. U., and added a question about “empathy” as well, given its salience to the Sotomayor nomination.

The survey asked: “How important would you say it is for a good Supreme Court judge to…..”

The numbers following each response correspond to the share who say Very important, Somewhat important, Not very important and Not important at all

Strictly follow the law no matter what people in the country may want? 39 42 14 4
Feel empathy for the people involved in a case? 17 41 26 14
Protect people without power from people and groups with power? 52 34 8 5
Respect the will of the majority of people in the U.S.? 34 40 17 9
Stay entirely independent of the President and Congress? 57 31 8 3
Follow his or her conscience or sense of morality? 31 43 15 9
Respect existing Supreme Court decisions by changing the law as little as possible? 30 47 16 5
Uphold the values of those who wrote our constitution two hundred years ago? 53 37 7 2

Apologies for my inability to figure out how to insert a table. As seen in this battery, which does not force respondents to choose among the options, every option finds majority support deeming that criterion to be “very” or “somewhat important.” The response patterns range from 90 percent who consider it very (53%) or somewhat (37%) important to “uphold the values of those who wrote our constitution two hundred years ago,” to 58 percent who consider it very (17%) or somewhat (41%) important for a judge “to feel empathy for the people involved in a case.” The only options that a majority considers very important are “stay entirely independent of the President and Congress” (57%), which is no surprise given the relatively low ratings the political branches, rather than the courts, tend to receive from the mass public; “uphold the values of those who wrote our constitution” (53%); and “protect people without power from people and groups with power” (52%), which surprised me a bit given the patterns on the other options.

We are just beginning to delve into the more interesting and important questions as to who identifies with which option – that is, what demographic characteristics and responses to other questions in the survey are associated with attitudes toward interpretive methodology. Here is one finding that seems particularly robust: even when controlling for all the usual demographic characteristics and a range of measures for political conservatism, moral traditionalism, libertarianism, religiosity etc., attitudes toward Roe v. Wade and attitudes toward federal recognition of same sex marriages where it is legal are powerful predictors of the choice of “original intentions” in the Quinnipiac question.

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