Last week a popular legal blog, Findlaw.com, released the results of a survey it had done designed to test the average American’s knowledge of the U.S. Supreme Court. Those findings were both remarkable and depressing. Findlaw.com took a random survey by telephone of 1,000 people about the Supreme Court. They discovered that the vast majority of Americans were unable to name the justices. Chief Justice Roberts was best known; 20 percent of the people surveyed knew his name. Justices Scalia and Thomas were known to 16 percent of those called; Justice Breyer was known to only 3 percent and the recognition percentage of the other justices fell in between.
The U.S. Supreme Court plays a powerful role — some say too powerful — and the decisions of the justices affect virtually every aspect of our daily lives. We are in the midst of a presidential election in which one of the most important issues is the Affordable Care Act and last spring’s Supreme Court decision on the legality of the act. The election process itself has been massively influenced by an earlier Supreme Court decision on campaign finance: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Perhaps, the most significant social issue in American politics today, abortion, centers on the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. There are few areas in American society and politics that have not been influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court. The nine justices of the Supreme Court are, perhaps, the most powerful men and women in American government and, certainly, are the most powerful non-elected American officials, and yet, according to the Findlaw.com survey, most Americans don’t even know their names. If Americans cannot name the justices of the Supreme Court, one is forced to ask what else they don’t know about the court.
To my mind this is ultimately an issue of insufficient education. When I was in school in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, every student was required to study what was then called “civics” both in elementary school and in high school. We studied the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. We were required to learn the names not only of the presidents but also the Supreme Court justices. We read the Constitution. In fact, I suspect that my fascination with law, a fascination that ultimately led to my becoming a lawyer and a law professor, began in those civics classes. Every American citizen has an obligation to be informed about our political and legal system. Only in this way can we fully and appropriately exercise our political rights. An uninformed citizenry cannot vote intelligently or even participate effectively in political discourse. The whole purpose of the First Amendment is to foster the free flow of information so that citizens can be fully informed.
The results of the Findlaw.com survey are shocking and depressing. To me they signal that we are not teaching our children adequately about the most important aspects of our national governance. Of course, this survey is not the first to point out how little the average American knows about his or her government, but the very fact that this public ignorance continues today is shocking in itself. I think that every teacher and educational administrator should look at their school curricula to see how they can better educate their students about our government. I think that every legislator should ask whether our educational standards are tough enough in these areas. I think that every parent should be sure that their children are learning the basic facts of American government. Let us hope that the next survey done by Findlaw.com or another group interested in Americans’ knowledge of government and law will show better results.