Majority of Public Wants Senate to Act on Obama’s Court Nominee
Most opponents reject hearings no matter whom Obama nominates
In the high-stakes battle over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a majority of Americans (56%) say the Senate should hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s choice to fill the vacancy. About four-in-ten (38%) say the Senate should not hold hearings until the next president selects a court nominee.
Most of those who want the Senate to hold off consideration of a Supreme Court nominee say they would not change their minds about this, regardless of whom Obama selects to replace Scalia. About a quarter of the public (26%) favors the Senate delaying action on the court vacancy, and say they would not be swayed from this view no matter whom Obama nominates. Just 10% of the public favors holding off action on the court vacancy, but say they may change their minds, depending on whom Obama nominates.
The national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted Feb. 18-21 among 1,002 adults, finds wide partisan and ideological differences in opinions about how the Senate should address the Supreme Court vacancy.
Two-thirds of Republicans (66%) – including 71% of conservative Republicans – say the Senate should not hold hearings on Scalia’s replacement until the next president selects a nominee. An even larger share of Democrats (79%) say the Senate should hold hearings and vote on whomever Obama nominates; among liberal Democrats, fully 85% express this view.
Scalia’s death and the subsequent debate over whether the Senate should consider Obama’s court nominee have drawn broad interest. About seven-in-ten Americans (71%) have heard a lot (45%) or a little (26%) about Scalia’s death and the vacancy on the court.
And nearly six-in-ten (57%) say the choice of the next Supreme Court justice is very important to them personally. In April 2010, after Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement from the court, and before Obama named Justice Elena Kagan as his replacement, just 40% viewed the choice of a new Supreme Court justice as very important.
However, there continue to be substantial demographic differences in views of the importance of the selection of a new Supreme Court justice.
Just 37% of those younger than 30 say the choice of the next justice is very important, little changed from April 2010 (34%). Among older age groups, majorities say the selection of a new Supreme Court justice is very important, and since 2010 there have been sizable increases in the shares of each age group expressing this view.
Two-thirds of Republicans (67%) view the selection of a new justice on the high court as very important, as do 62% of Democrats. But only about half of independents (52%) say the choice of a new court justice is very important.
There also continue to be educational differences in views of importance of the selection of a new Supreme Court justice. Fully 73% of those with postgraduate degrees view this choice as very important; just half (50%) of those with no more than a high school education agree.
Views on how the Senate should handle Supreme Court vacancy
There are wide racial and educational differences in opinions about how the Senate should deal with the vacancy created by Scalia’s death. Fully 82% of African Americans say the Senate should hold hearings and vote on Obama’s nominee for the high court. Just half (50%) of whites agree, while 44% say the Senate should not hold hearings until the next president selects a court nominee.
By more than four to one (77% to 18%), those with postgraduate degrees say the Senate should hold hearings and vote on Obama’s nominee, rather than delaying action until the next president fills the court vacancy. Majorities of those with college degrees (60%) and some college experience (55%) also favor the Senate acting on Obama’s choice for the high court.
But those with no more than a high school degree are divided: 48% say the Senate should act on Obama’s nominee, while 45% say the Senate should not hold hearings until the next president selects a nominee.
Across most demographic and partisan groups, most of those who favor delaying action on the Supreme Court vacancy say they would not change their minds regardless of whom Obama nominates.
Among conservative Republicans, for example, 71% say the Senate should not hold hearings until the next president nominates a Supreme Court justice – and 51% say they would not change their minds depending on whom Obama nominates. Just 18% of conservative Republicans say they may change their minds, depending on whom Obama chooses for the court.
Perceptions of Justice Scalia’s ideology
The public has long shown a dim awareness of the members of the Supreme Court. In a 2015 survey, for instance, just 34% correctly identified John Roberts as chief justice. (For more see “5 facts about the Supreme Court.”).
In the new survey, 55% of the public say that Justice Scalia was generally considered a conservative, 11% say he was considered a moderate and 9% say he was viewed as a liberal. A quarter does not offer a response about Scalia’s ideology.
Awareness of Scalia’s ideological leanings is much higher among older than younger adults. And while majorities of those with at least some college experience know Scalia’s ideology, just 37% of those with only a high school degree say he is generally regarded as a conservative. Those who say they heard a lot about Scalia’s death and the vacancy it left in the court are more than twice as likely as those who say they heard less about this to say that Scalia was generally considered a conservative (80% vs. 34%).