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The Supreme Court and Public Opinion

David Savage has this story in the L.A. Times last Saturday, noting "if American public opinion is the measure, the Roberts court has made the right call in most of its major decisions since [Justice Alito joined the court], according to a recent study that asked respondents about cases."

The survey is the Constitutional Attitudes Survey by Nathaniel Persily of Columbia and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard.  Doug Berman has this post at SL&P.

The formatting of this survey makes it a little difficult to follow. The full questions are in one appendix and the answers are listed with abbreviated versions of the questions in another. Another confusing aspect is that some questions about Supreme Court cases ask for the respondent's opinion about whether the decision was correct, while others only ask for knowledge about how the Court actually did decide the case. 

Here are some questions and answers of interest:

Q207. Should the government be allowed to apply the death penalty in any of the following cases?

An adult convicted of murder:   76.9 / 21.8 / 1.2

This wording provides an interesting contrast to the "standard" question, discussed many times on this blog (e.g., here).  Unlike the usual question, this one does not imply that the respondent is being asked to choose a single sentence for all murderers.  Lo and behold, support jumps ~10% above the standard result, from about 2/3 to about 3/4 of the population.

However, the people seem to be okay with 2 of the Court's 3 categorical exclusions:

Mentally retarded (Atkins):   18.7 / 79.6 / 1.7
Under 18 (Simmons):           41.6 / 56.6 / 1.6
Rape of a child (Kennedy):    67.3 / 31.5 / 1.2

Boumediene v. Bush got the thumbs down. Q214: Should non-citizens suspected of terrorism and detained in US military prisons be allowed to challenge their detentions in the US civilian court system?   37.9 / 59.8 / 2.3

Contrast the opinion question with the knowledge question. Q303: Did the Court rule that detainees have a right to a hearing or do not have a right?   39.6 / 23.5 / 36.2

On Graham v. Florida: Q511e. A state should be allowed to sentence for life in prison a person under 18 years of age for armed burglary.
    Strongly agree: 10.9%;   Agree somewhat: 24.6%;  Disagree somewhat: 36.0;
    Strongly disagree: 23.4%; Refused: 3.1%

That indicates a majority agreed with the result in the individual case.  It does not, however, indicate agreement with the Supreme Court majority's categorical exclusion of all under-18s from LWOP sentences for all nonhomicide offenses.  The difference between the Roberts position and the majority position is not measured by this question.  On the knowledge question (Q522), a majority did not know how the Court decided.

Flag burning still gets a massive thumbs down, with an absolute majority in the "strongly disagree" column (Q512e): 10.1 / 16.5 / 15.0 / 55.6 / 2.5

Banning handguns is disapproved, but lesser measures get majority approval, including banning "assault weapons and semi-automatic weapons,"* carrying in public places, and background checks.  Individual rights under the Second Amendment (as opposed to the militia only) are approved by 72.3%.

*That is poor phrasing. Some people do not know what a "semi-automatic" is, and whether to ban "assault weapons" is a different question from whether to ban semi-automatics.

Voter ID wins by a landslide:   84.1 / 14.2 / 1.7

Overall, a most interesting survey.

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