National Poll: Public Rejects Candidates’ Attacks on Courts
Voters Want Judges Accountable to the Constitution, not Congress
WASHINGTON, D.C., Dec. 22—Americans solidly reject an array of proposals, by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and some other GOP presidential candidates, that would severely limit the role of federal courts, according to a new national public opinion survey released today by the nonpartisan Justice at Stake Campaign.
By strong margins, voters oppose allowing Congress to limit the types of cases that the courts can hear—a proposal supported by four Republican candidates—or allowing Congress or the President to ignore or overturn Supreme Court decisions. Voters also oppose a controversial suggestion by former Speaker Gingrich that U.S. Marshals could arrest judges to compel them to appear before Congress to explain their decisions.
“The court-bashing coming off the campaign trail is way outside the American political mainstream,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake. “This poll confirms that Americans don’t want their leaders tampering with the courts. They strongly support courts that are accountable to the Constitution, not to elected politicians.”
The poll of 1,000 registered voters nationwide, conducted Dec. 21-22, shows that Americans strongly believe that courts should be accountable to the Constitution, and not to Congress. Voters rejected almost all of the specific proposals floated by GOP candidates regarding the courts. Only a plan by Governor Rick Perry to set 18-year terms for U.S. Supreme Court justices, instead of lifetime appointments, won public support. Some examples:
- 57 percent said Congress and the President should not be able to ignore Supreme Court decisions, while only 19 percent said they should.
- 48 percent said Congress should not be able to limit the types of cases heard by the courts, in order to prevent issues such as same-sex marriage and religious freedom from being decided by judges, while 29 percent favored such actions by Congress.
- 50 percent rejected a constitutional amendment proposed by Perry, by which a two-thirds majority of Congress could overturn a Supreme Court decision, while 30 percent favored it.
- 53 percent opposed the idea of Congress eliminating courts in response to decisions that many people disagree with, while 26 percent favored it.
- When asked whether Congress should simply be able to ask judges to come before it to explain decisions, 36 percent opposed the idea, while 42 percent favored it. However, a majority, 51 to 38 percent, opposed former Speaker Gingrich’s suggestion that marshals forcibly detain judges for congressional questioning.
One idea did receive a positive reception from voters nationwide. A proposal to eliminate life tenure for the Supreme Court, replacing it with nine rotating eighteen-year terms that would create a vacancy every two years, received support from 48 percent of Americans. The proposal was opposed by 31 percent of respondents. Floated by Governor Perry, this proposal has strong roots in the academic community; Perry’s website cites an article by Steven G. Calabresi and James Lindgren as the source for his proposal, and several other legal academics have made similar proposals.
Overall, Americans strongly support independent courts that serve as a check on the other branches of government. When asked whether Congress should hold courts more accountable, or whether courts should be more accountable to the law and the Constitution, 70 percent agreed that judges should be accountable to the law and the Constitution, not Congress, while only 19 percent felt that Congress should hold courts accountable. And 45 percent said they did not favor more congressional checks on the courts, while 39 percent did.
“Courts are the guardians of our constitutional liberties, and voters like the system that our Founders designed,” said Brandenburg. “This election campaign has produced some bad, dangerous ideas that would make courts beholden to partisan agendas. The good news is that Americans aren’t buying what a small, extremist fringe has been loudly selling.”
On Oct. 24, Justice at Stake issued an analysis of Republican candidates’ positions toward the courts, and found that six candidates—Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, Governor Rick Perry, former Senator Rick Santorum—supported plans that would threaten the ability of courts to declare laws unconstitutional.
Starting with a Dec. 15 candidates’ debate, Gingrich dramatically stepped up anti-court attacks, assailing “grotesquely dictatorial courts” and “radically anti-American” judges. His suggestion, on Face the Nation, that armed federal marshals could detain federal judges for questioning by Congress sparked a furor among national commentators, including conservative George Will.
Conducted December 20-21, 2011, by 20/20 Insight Polling, the nationwide opinion survey of 1000 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. Read the full poll.
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The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan national partnership working to keep our courts fair, impartial and free from special-interest and partisan agendas. In states across America, Campaign partners work to protect our courts through public education, grass-roots organizing and reform. The Campaign provides strategic coordination and brings organizational, communications and research resources to the work of its partners and allies at the national, state and local levels. The positions of Justice at Stake partners are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other partners or board members. Justice at Stake does not endorse or oppose candidates for election, but does analyze candidates’ positions as they relate to fair, impartial courts. For information, visit www.justiceatstake.org or read our blog www.gavelgrab.org.