Poll affirms a vote for judicial know-how

Justice John Paul Stevens will retire at the end of the current term.
Justice John Paul Stevens will retire at the end of the current term. (Charles Dharapak/associated Press)
By Robert Barnes and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

Some Senate Democrats and legal activists are advising President Obama to look beyond the "judicial monastery" to find a replacement for retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, but the public does not seem to share that view.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that judicial experience is the most valued quality among a list of professional and personal characteristics. Seven in 10 say service as a judge is a positive quality for a Supreme Court nominee, while only 5 percent see it as a negative. In contrast, 35 percent view experience outside the legal world as a positive.

Overall, two-thirds of Americans say they are comfortable with Obama selecting the nation's next justice, including nearly a third of Republicans. That is comparable with a Fox News poll conducted last May before the president chose Sonia Sotomayor to be his first nominee to the court.

The Post-ABC poll also shows a change in the way Americans view the court. Even though Obama and the Democratic leadership in the Senate have complained that the court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has become too "activist" and conservative, the public sees things differently.

Overall, 46 percent say the current court is balanced in its decisions, a figure basically unchanged from when the question was asked three years ago. But now, 26 percent consider it too liberal, compared with 21 percent who say it is too conservative. Three years ago, 31 percent called the Supreme Court's rulings too conservative and 18 percent thought they were too liberal.

The July 2007 poll was conducted shortly after the court upheld a federal ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion and issued a ruling restricting how school systems could use race to assign students to public schools.

But the court's jurisprudence has not shifted to the left since then, suggesting that the results have more to do with a changing political mood in the country. The swing has been mostly among Republicans. In 2007, 26 percent of Republicans described the court's rulings as too liberal; that figure jumped to 43 percent in the new poll.

Views among Democrats and independents have not shifted as dramatically. Independents are more apt to call the court too liberal (26 percent, compared with 19 percent who say it is too conservative) than in 2007 (20 percent too liberal, 29 percent too conservative). Among Democrats, 35 percent call the court too conservative (down from 43 percent in 2007) and 15 percent consider it too liberal, about the same as in 2007.

On Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion, six in 10 want the next justice to vote to uphold Roe, while 38 percent say it should be overturned. Although the share in favor of upholding the ruling has held about even, the number in favor of overturning it is the highest in Post-ABC polling since 2005, with the increase spurred largely by a shift among Republicans.

Six in 10 Republicans say it should be overturned, trending up from 54 percent who said last year that Sotomayor should vote that way and about half who shared that view when Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. were nominated in 2005.

The public appears mostly unconcerned with diversity and other characteristics that have been mentioned as Obama narrows his search for a nominee, expected to be named in the next couple of weeks.

Eight in 10 say it is not important to them whether the nominee is a woman, an African American or a Protestant. Stevens is the lone Protestant on the court, serving with six Catholics and two Jews, and a Fox News poll finds that 70 percent of voters say it would not matter to them if there were no Protestants on the bench.

In the Post-ABC poll, the question of a gay nominee is more divisive. While only 4 percent consider it a positive, 22 percent say it would be a strongly negative factor. Senior citizens are more likely to consider a gay nominee a negative (34 percent, compared with 26 percent among those ages 40 to 64 and 19 percent among those younger than 40), as are Republicans (44 percent say it is a factor against) and white evangelicals (51 percent). Seven in 10 say it would not be a factor if the nominee were gay.

Of those who thought it a positive factor that the nominee have experience outside the legal profession, they favored someone with business experience, as opposed to a politician, 56 percent to 36 percent.

The poll finds 65 percent of Americans -- 63 percent of registered voters -- comfortable with Obama making the choice. In June 2005, a Fox poll found 54 percent of registered voters comfortable with President George W. Bush choosing a replacement for the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

In the poll involving Obama, about one in five say they are not at all comfortable (21 percent) with the president's ability to choose, a figure that peaks among "strong" Republicans.

The telephone poll was conducted April 22-25 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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