Poll: Public Closely Split on Judges' Views

The jury is out on whether the Senate should consider a judicial nominee's political views: The public divides closely on the issue, with broad partisan differences reflecting the nation's deep political divisions.

Fifty-one percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say the Senate should consider a judge's views on political issues, not solely his or her background and qualifications. But nearly as many, 46 percent, say politics should be left off the table.

The question is of heightened interest given the possibility of an upcoming vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the controversy over some of President Bush's appeals court nominees. In this poll, nearly six in 10 Republicans say the Senate should consider only a judge's qualifications, not his or her views on political issues; 55 percent of independents and six in 10 Democrats say political views should also be taken into account.

Most conservatives agree with Republicans on this issue, while most liberals and moderates side with the majority of Democrats and independents.

And age and gender are factors as well: Younger Americans are 22 points more likely than senior citizens to favor looking at a nominee's political views. Most women also favor such consideration, while men are split.

Ideology

Amid wide speculation about a Supreme Court vacancy -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist has thyroid cancer -- a plurality of Americans, 41 percent, say the next justice should be more of a moderate than a conservative or liberal. Thirty-five percent prefer a conservative, and about two in 10 say the nominee should be a liberal.

While that follows the public's own ideological composition, conservatives are more focused on getting one of their own on the court, and liberals less so. Three in four conservatives say the next Supreme Court nominee should be a conservative; two-thirds of moderates call for a moderate, and 55 percent of liberals want a liberal nominee.

Next Supreme Court Nominee Should Be A:
  Liberal Moderate Conservative
All   21%   41%   35%
Liberals   55   32   12
Moderates   15   67   15
Conservatives   6   16   75

Bush Approval

Americans are nearly evenly split on Bush's overall handling of the nomination of federal judges: Forty-six percent approve, 44 percent disapprove, with, again, deep partisan and ideological splits. Nearly eight in 10 Republicans and two-thirds of conservatives approve, while seven in 10 Democrats and nearly two-thirds of liberals disapprove. Independents and moderates, the middle-ground Americans, are somewhat more likely to disapprove than to approve.

Courts versus Legislatures

In terms of state courts, there's no consensus on trust in state courts versus legislatures to handle the hot-button issues of gay marriage, abortion and the death penalty. Americans divide evenly, 44 percent-44 percent, on whether they trust their state's courts or legislature more to deal with abortion. Legislatures have a slight edge, 45 percent-40 percent, in trust to handle gay marriage; but the courts have greater trust, 53 percent-40 percent, on the death penalty.

Again, there are broad divisions. Republicans and conservatives are much more likely than Democrats and liberals to trust their state legislatures to deal with each of these -- likely reflecting Republican criticism of "activist judges."

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