A brief item in the Washington Post titled “A Nation of Stooges” reported that, in a nationwide poll, fewer than 50 percent of Americans could name one justice of the Supreme Court and only 17 percent could name three. In contrast, 59 percent of the people could identify the character names of the comedic trio The Three Stooges.Richard Morin, “A Nation of Stooges,” Washington Post, October 8, 1995, C5.
This is the kind of cute item the media relish reporting; they have, as noted in the aforementioned article, fun with “new facts and hot stats from the social sciences.” But the comparison is unfair. The Stooges appeared in close to two hundred short movies still shown on television. Years after their deaths, they remain cult figures with apparel, toys, and candy merchandised in their name. In contrast, Supreme Court justices usually crave anonymity, avoid publicity, keep cameras out of their courtroom, and rarely appear on television.
In fact, the public’s knowledge of the Supreme Court and the justices is greater than most surveys indicate.James L. Gibson and Gregory A. Caldeira, Citizens, Courts and Confirmations: Positivity Theory and the Judgments of the American People (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). Moreover, the media are much to blame that it is not higher: their coverage of the Court is sparse compared to that of the president and Congress.
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