Hearings to confirm Sonia Sotomayor begin Monday. How does the public view her? Two sets of survey questions provide some interesting insights.
Nominees become household names during their confirmation hearings, but after that, the public's memories fade. In June 1989, after William Rehnquist had served on the Court for 17 years, only 9% of respondents to a Washington Post poll could identify him as the chief justice. In the same poll, 54% knew the name of the judge on television's People Court. (It's Judge Wapner.) Answering a May 2005 Quinnipiac poll, two-thirds said they hadn't heard enough about Antonin Scalia to know whether he would make a good chief justice--even though, at that point, he had served on the high court for almost 20 years.
Perhaps because the justices stay out of the news and the Supreme Court sticks to its business, the Court as an institution gets high marks from the public. A solid majority--59% in Gallup's latest poll--approve of the way the Court is handling its responsibilities. Majorities in the few polls that have explored the subject say they would like Court proceedings televised, but, then again, making the Court too familiar could hurt its standing.
Initial impressions of Sotomayor were positive. Fifty-four percent in an early Gallup poll said the Senate should confirm her. The responses for the newest justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, were similar when they were introduced to the public.
There hasn't been a great deal of polling about her since then, but two surveys about Sotomayor shed light on how people think about a nominee in general. The first involves the New Haven, Conn., firefighters case, Ricci v. de Stefano.
Here's how Quinnipiac University set up a question that was asked before the Court handed down its decision supporting the firefighters: "As you may know, the Supreme Court will be deciding a case involving New Haven, Conn., firefighters' use of promotion tests for firefighters. Because no black scored high enough to qualify for promotion, the city decided to throw out the test."
Nineteen percent agreed with what New Haven had done, but an overwhelming 71% said the Court should "order the city to promote the 14 white and one Hispanic firefighter who scored high enough for promotion." Solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents agreed. A majority of blacks and whites did.
When told in the next question that Sotomayor supported New Haven, however, 7% said that knowledge made them more likely to favor her appointment and 28% said it make them less likely to favor her--but a solid 59% said it didn't make a difference. A majority of Democrats and independents said it was not relevant. A slight plurality of Republicans said it made them less likely to support her.
In another poll, Fox News and Opinion Dynamics asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with Sotomayor when she said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Thirty-two percent agreed with her, but 58% did not. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans, 61% of Independents and 42% of Democrats disagreed with her characterization. Yet, when reminded of her remark and asked whether it should disqualify her from serving on the Court, just 29% said it should. (The breakdown: 15% of Democrats, 30% of independents and 44% of Republicans thought it should disqualify her.)
To be sure, people are interested in a Supreme Court nominee's views on issues and want senators to ask about them during the confirmation process. In a new question from CBS News and the New York Times, just 30% said that the Senate should only consider that person's legal qualifications and background, while 62% said the Senate should also consider how that person might vote.
But when asked by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal about what the legislative body should give greater weight to, a nominee's legal qualifications trumped his or her views on issues in importance. So while people may disagree with specific things Sonia Sotomayor has said or done, they want the Senate to evaluate her based on other characteristics too.
Is Sotomayor looking forward to her time in the media sun next week? We can't know, of course. But if she is confirmed, she will, like other justices before her, soon be out of the limelight and able to return to the business of being a judge.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.