How well-known are the Supreme Court Justices?

March 17, 2021, 1:50 PM UTC

A contentious confirmation hearing could be a key factor in public recognition for Supreme Court Justices. In the latest Economist/YouGov poll, the three best-known Justices all had the most bitterly contested confirmation hearings, with two-thirds of Americans having an opinion of them.

All three – Amy Coney Barrett (64% have an opinion on her), Brett Kavanaugh (66%), and Clarence Thomas (67%) – had memorable hearings before their confirmations. While Coney Barrett and Kavanaugh were recent nominees, put forward by President Donald Trump, Thomas was nominated by President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. 

It could be that the greater awareness that comes with a controversial confirmation process follows those Justices around for the rest of their tenure. But controversy is not likely to be the only factor in the Justices’ fame.  

Sonia Sotomayor is the only other Justice as well-known as Coney Barrett, Kavanaugh and Thomas, with three in five (62%) Americans having an opinion of her. She was featured at the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and administered the oath to the Vice President.  

Meanwhile, the third Justice nominated by President Trump, Neil Gorsuch, seems to have avoided the notoriety of the other two, as just 53% have an opinion on him. 

Despite being Chief Justice, John Roberts ranks only fifth overall in terms of recognition, with 59% expressing a view on him. 

Stephen Breyer is the oldest Justice at 82 years old and has served since President Bill Clinton appointed him in 1994 (only the 72-year-old Clarence Thomas has served longer). But fewer than half the public (44%) expresses any opinion of him – good (24%) or bad (20%), making him the least well-known Justice. 

All of the prominent Justices evoke harsh partisan reactions. Generally, majorities from the party of the President who nominated them view them favorably, while majorities of those from the other party do not.  

Chief Justice Roberts is the sole case of a Justice faring worse with those from the party of the president who nominated them than with those in the opposition party. In the last few years, Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has cast the deciding vote in a number of cases, occasionally disagreeing with the Court’s conservatives. The most notable example was his vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). Perhaps because of this independence, Democrats are more favorable (39%) toward Justice Roberts than Republicans (27%). 

At the moment, the Court as a whole is better liked by Democrats (48% approve, 34% disapprove) than by Republicans (39% approve, 41% disapprove). Republicans — 74% of whom do not believe Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election — may be disappointed that the Supreme Court refused to rule against Biden’s victory in multiple suits brought by the Trump campaign.  

Related: By 37% to 29%, Democrats want New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to resign 

See the toplines and crosstabs from this Economist/YouGov poll 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between March 6 - 9, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 2.7% for the overall sample  

Image: Getty