Better Know a Justice! A Supreme Court Cheat Sheet

According to a new poll, two thirds of Americans can't name a single member of the Court. Meanwhile, these people are more powerful than they've been in a long time.



It's the second half of August, which means it's the time for vacations, political scandals, and polls about how ignorant hundreds of millions of Americans are about even the most basic questions of modern governance. As to topic three, this week's leader in the clubhouse is a new poll that reveals that two-thirds of all Americans can't name a single justice of the United States Supreme Court. This after a Court term which was one of the most profound and contentious of its generation.

Chief Justice John Roberts led the way in name recognition -- but only one in five respondents could name him. At the bottom of the list was Justice Stephen Breyer, the Clinton appointee identified by only 3 percent of those surveyed. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote who decides so many of those critical 5-4 cases? Only one in ten could identify him. Do yourself a favor. Right after you read the piece about the poll, read Adam Liptak's interesting piece from Monday in The New York Times. Its essence?

An overlooked consequence of the current polarization and gridlock in Congress, a new study found, has been a huge transfer of power to the Supreme Court. It now almost always has the last word, even in decisions that theoretically invite a Congressional response.

"Congress is overriding the Supreme Court much less frequently in the last decade,' Richard L. Hasen, the author of the study, said in an interview. "I didn't expect to see such a dramatic decline. The number of overrides has fallen to almost none."

The Court is still the most reactive branch of government. But it's no secret that the justices, like everyone else in America, understand that Congress has crippled itself. This explains why so many people laughed in court in March when Justice Antonin Scalia, on his way to voting against the Affordable Care Act, suggested tongue-in-cheek that the easiest answer would be for federal lawmakers to go back to the drawing board and fix the legislation. Good one, Justice Scalia!

If you are reading this, you are likely in the one-third of the populace that can name at least one justice. But chances are you know a great many people who cannot. With attention spans being what they are, especially in the weeks leading up to Labor Day, I thought I would offer a brief primer on the men and women who wield so much power in such an anonymous way in this country. If you only have the time and brain space to read just one thing about each justice, here they are....

Chief Justice John Roberts, 20 Percent: Forget about his vote to save the Affordable Care Act. Focus instead upon his reactionary analysis of the Commerce Clause. Jeffrey Toobin's May 2009 New Yorker piece, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," remains the standard in assessing the "stealth" conservatism of the man who replaced his mentor and idol, William Rehnquist, at the helm of the Court.

Justice Clarence Thomas, 16 Percent: Forget about his lingering silence from the bench. Forget about how he got his job. Just read his dissent in Safford United School District v. Redding, the 2009 case in which all of his eight colleagues on the Court agreed that middle school administrators had violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old student when they strip-searched her looking for Ibuprofen. Only Justice Thomas declared that such a search did not violate the 14th Amendment.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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