Over the past week and a half, the political world has been buzzing with speculation about whom President George W. Bush will nominate to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. And in recent months, federal courts have taken up highly controversial issues, most notably the Terri Schiavo case. Thus, people from all parts of the liberal/conservative spectrum are closely scrutinizing the ideological orientation of the federal judiciary.
What's the public opinion backdrop of all this -- that is, how do Americans feel about the viewpoints of today's federal judges? A May 2005 Gallup Poll* shows mixed sentiments.
When asked whether federal court judges are "too liberal," "too conservative," or "just about right," a plurality of Americans (44%) say they feel judges are about right. Overall, 29% of those polled think federal judges are too liberal and only 19% believe they are too conservative. Naturally, there are big differences in opinion among Republicans, Democrats, and political independents. Results among independents and Democrats are similar: 21% of independents and 20% of Democrats think judges are too liberal; 22% of independents and 24% of Democrats think they are too conservative, and 48% and 49%, respectively, think federal judges are about right. Republicans' responses tell an entirely different story: 50% think federal judges are too liberal, 9% think they are too conservative, and only about a third -- 34% -- think they are about right.
Should Judges Be Influenced by Christian Values?
The conservative dissatisfaction with federal judges may stem from a belief -- popularized in the wake of the Schiavo case -- that judges do not consider Christian values enough when deciding cases. Gallup asked the public about this directly, and found a plurality thinks Christian values don't influence federal court judges' rulings enough. Thirty-eight percent of Americans say Christian values don't have enough influence in federal rulings, while 27% think judges are influenced too much by Christian values, and 28% think the amount of Christian influence is about right. Not surprisingly, a clear majority of Republicans (58%) believe Christian values don't influence federal court rulings enough; far fewer independents (29%) and Democrats (30%) agree. Four in 10 Democrats believe judges are influenced too much by Christian ideals.
Why are Americans more likely to say federal judges' rulings aren't influenced enough by Christian values than to give either of the alternate responses? There are several possible factors at work.
First, the phrase "Christian values" encompasses a broad range of perspectives. A judge's ruling to uphold the death penalty may go against some individuals' understandings of "Christian values," while for others that understanding is violated by a judge's upholding of abortion rights.
The publicity given to federal court decisions about the appropriateness of displays of the Ten Commandments, the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Schiavo case, and partial-birth abortion rulings may have influenced some responses. For example, in the last two years, Ten Commandments monument cases have come before federal judges in Alabama, Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, and Kentucky. Whenever a federal judge has ruled that a Ten Commandments display should be removed, the public has overwhelmingly opposed that decision.
Finally, it's possible the considerable efforts of conservative Christian political action groups, such as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, have had some influence. These groups see judicial appointments as a crucial part of their platform, and regularly use television advertising and other media strategies to criticize what they feel are anti-Christian decisions by "activist judges." That nearly a third of independents and Democrats believe judges' rulings are not influenced enough by Christian values is a testament to the crossover potential of that message among religious independents and religious Democrats. The Democratic Party itself has lacked such a focused, consistent message on federal judges.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 20-22, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.