Poll: Most Americans see politics over substance in Supreme Court confirmation process

Fresh off of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation to the Supreme Court, a new poll shows some Americans have concerns about the arduous and political Senate approval process.

  • About 68% of Americans see Supreme Court confirmations as about politics more than the law.
  • Nineteen percent of respondents said they watched some or all of the hearings live.
  • A majority of Americans who watched the hearings said they support Judge Jackson's confirmation to the Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON – The arduous process of confirming a Supreme Court nominee has turned into one of the most significant spectacles in American politics – at once a job interview, law lecture and television campaign ad that plays out over four days.

With Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's historic confirmation in the books, a new poll suggests a majority of Americans are uncertain whether it's worth all the fuss.

Nearly seven in 10 Americans see the constitutionally mandated task of confirming a Supreme Court nominee as more about politics than substance, according to an exclusive USA TODAY/Ipsos poll conducted after Jackson's confirmation. Only about 36% of people say the marathon of hearings leads to better justices on the high court.

The skepticism appears to be shared across party identification: Fewer than half of both Republicans and Democrats think the hearings lead to better outcomes. 

"I think it's already decided who they're going to (vote for) before they even start talking to each other or interviewing each other," said Teresa Griesse, a 68-year-old business owner from Missouri who identifies as an independent. "I believe it's politics. I don't believe it's a fair choice."

Jackie Johnson, a 74-year-old sales representative for the Georgia lottery who identifies as a Democrat, said the outcome depends on who's in office. 

"It's a two-sided thing. It's like a game of baseball: one side's gotta win," Johnson said.

Hazing:Constitutional questions, cafeteria choices await Ketanji Brown Jackson 

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Wait:Jackson confirmed in a hurry. Getting on the Supreme Court? That'll take time.

If Americans are turned off by confirmation hearings, they appear to share the sentiment with the justices themselves, outside experts and even senior Senate aides – some of whom described them as "kabuki theater" and "insufferable" to a commission created by President Joe Biden last year to study the politicization of the Supreme Court.

Public support for the Supreme Court has fallen in recent months as its 6-3 conservative majority takes up a series of culture war issues such as access to abortion, the availability of handguns and the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions. But some, including Chief Justice John Roberts, have warned that the exceedingly partisan confirmation process has played a role in harming the court's above-the-fray image.

"When you have a sharply political, divisive hearing process, it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms," Roberts said in 2016.

Jackson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was confirmed 53-47 on April 7 and will be sworn in as the 116th Supreme Court justice later this year. The Harvard-educated lawyer and Miami native will become the first Black woman to serve on the court in its 233-year history, a milestone even some of her critics acknowledged.

Less than half – about four in ten Americans –  said Jackson was treated fairly at her hearings last month. The number rose to 55% for those who tuned in to watch. 

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee peppered Jackson with questions about critical race theory, how often she attends church and how she would define the word "woman." She faced a barrage of questions about her judicial philosophy, her work as a federal public defender and her sentencing in criminal cases.

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in particular, slammed Jackson on sentences she handed down for people convicted of possessing or distributing child pornography, which were frequently below guidelines set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Jackson's supporters pointed to Sentencing Commission data that shows most federal judges issue sentences below the guidelines in child porn cases.

Sentencing:A look at the child porn cases at issue in Jackson's Senate hearings

Philosophy:After hearings, experts debate how Jackson would interpret Constitution

It's not clear how much of that criticism cut through, particularly given the war raging in Ukraine, a recent jump in COVID-19 cases and the fact that Jackson's confirmation wouldn't upset the current 6-3 balance on the Supreme Court. Just under two-thirds of respondents said Jackson's "judicial philosophy" was a reason to oppose her – roughly the same as the share of people who cited her "record on the vulnerable and children."

"Judge, you gave him three months," Hawley, widely considered to be a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2024, pressed Jackson about one of the child pornography cases during the hearings. "My question is, do you regret it – or not?"

"Senator, what I regret is that in a hearing about my qualifications to be a justice on the Supreme Court, we have spent a lot of time focusing on this small subset of my sentences," Jackson responded at one point

About two in 10 Americans said they watched some or all of the Senate confirmation hearings live, according to the poll. Roughly one-third said they learned about the hearings through news coverage. Nearly half said they didn't follow the hearings at all.

Griesse said she watched "very, very little" of the hearings, while 29-year-old Jonathan White of New Jersey, who identifies as a Republican, said he watched all of it.

"She's overly qualified and they don't want to hear about it," White said of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

No one – aside from perhaps Jackson herself – came out of the four-day series of hearings looking significantly better than before the gavel fell, the poll suggests. About 24% – including 41% of Republicans – said they had a more favorable impression of Hawley, Cruz and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., after the hearings. Senate Democrats fared only slightly better, with 30% saying they had a more favorable impression. 

Those numbers were highly dependent on the party affiliation of the respondent.  

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2022.

By comparison, 40% of respondents said they had a more favorable view of Jackson after the hearings.

Overall, 49% of Americans said they supported Jackson's confirmation – a number that rose to nearly two-thirds among those who said they followed the hearings. About 64% of Americans said it is significant there will soon be four women on the Supreme Court for the first time in its history: Jackson and Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett. 

"The significance of Jackson's confirmation, and all it represents, did not go unnoticed by the American public," said Cliff Young, president of the poll firm Ipsos. "However, in our deeply partisan landscape, a strong majority see the nomination process as nothing more than politics as usual, and the hearing did little to change deeply-rooted attitudes about politics in America."

The USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll of 1,005 Americans, taken April 12-13, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

The Constitution requires that the Senate provide its "advice and consent" on presidential nominees to the Supreme Court, but it doesn't require hearings – and for most of the nation's history, senators didn't convene them. The first Supreme Court confirmation hearing was set in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis, who would go on to be one of the court's most influential associate justices. 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asks questions during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Associate Justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on March 21, 2022.

In modern times, both sides have alleged political shenanigans. Republicans point to President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork in 1987, which Democrats torpedoed over his judicial philosophy. And they blame Democrats for the frenzy that surrounded the confirmation of Associate Justices Clarence Thomas in 1991 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Thomas faced allegations that he sexually harassed a former co-worker. Kavanaugh faced allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct.

Both men denied the allegations during tense Senate hearings and were narrowly confirmed.

Democrats note Senate Republicans blocked President Barack Obama's 2016 nominee to the court, Merrick Garland, by arguing confirmations shouldn't take place months out from a presidential election. Four years later, after the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Republicans then rushed through President Donald Trump's nominee, Barrett, just weeks before the 2020 election.

Today, with a few exceptions, the Senate confirmation process has tended to be more predictable, with nominees growing increasingly adept at not directly answering questions and final votes largely locked into place before the hearings begin. Jackson picked up three Republican votes – Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.  In announcing her support for Jackson, Murkowski pointed in part to the judge's qualifications, which, she said, "no one questions."

Johnson, the Georgia saleswoman, said Jackson's performance made her proud. 

"I don't know if I could've been that strong and stayed as calm as she did," she said.