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Confirmation Politics

The most recent Quinnipiac survey provides an intriguing backdrop to President Obama’s impending Supreme Court nomination. Fifty-three percent of the respondents are very or somewhat confident that the president will make the right decision about who should replace Justice John Paul Stevens. At the same time, 42 percent expect that his nominee will be more liberal than they would like, versus only 8 percent who think the nominee won’t be liberal enough. Perhaps that is why people are almost evenly divided (46 percent to 43 percent) between those who trust the president more than Senate Republicans and vice versa.

The people polled have clear views about judicial philosophy and behavior. Forty-nine percent favor original intent as the basis of Supreme Court decisions (up from 40 percent in 2008), while 42 percent say that the Court should consider “changing times and current realities” (down from 52 percent). But they don’t think that either of these jurisprudential norms entirely dominates the justices’ decision-making. Instead, 78 percent believe that their political views enter in as well. This belief is shared across lines of partisanship and ideology—by 82 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of Democrats, and 80 percent of independents, by 77 percent of liberals, 78 percent of moderates, and 80 percent of conservatives. And respondents are divided almost evenly (47 percent to 43 percent) between those who believe senators should take only the nominee’s qualification into account and those who believe they should also consider his or her views on controversial issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Forty-eight percent believe that senators who disagree with the nominee’s views on these issues would be justified in filibustering the nomination; 41 percent disagree.

The survey also shows that many of the specific positions that Democrats and the president care most about enjoy substantial public support. For example, 60 percent of the people endorse Roe v. Wade, including 42 percent of Republicans and even 39 percent of self-identified conservatives. And, on the topic of campaign finance, President Obama has repeatedly expressed his belief that the Supreme Court went badly astray in its well-known Citizens United case, which struck down key limits on election spending, especially by corporations and unions. By a margin of 79 percent to 14 percent, the American people agree with him—82 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of independents, and 78 percent of Republicans (along with 69 percent of self-professed conservatives). This suggests that, if his Supreme Court nominee shares Obama's view (which is likely), his Republican adversaries in the Senate would be ill-advised to challenge that view very aggressively.

There's no doubt that Obama will take many different factors into account when selecting his nominee, including the capacity for intellectual leadership on the Court and ease of confirmation. But the Quinnipiac Survey suggests that, while the president has room to maneuver on specifics and the Republicans might be unwise to defy a nominee's more liberal views on certain hot-button issues, the public tends to believe the president will pick someone more liberal than they themselves are. Republicans, in turn, would not necessarily pay a high political price if they filibustered the nominee. We could be in for quite the confirmation circus.

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