Poll: Public Gives President Obama Latitude in Supreme Court Nomination

Two-thirds say they're comfortable having Obama make the choice.

April 30, 2010 -- Americans give President Obama latitude in selecting the next Supreme Court nominee, with two-thirds saying they're comfortable having him make the choice and broad majorities rejecting most personal attributes as important factors in a justice – save one, experience on the bench.

Seventy percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say it'd be a net positive in their view if Obama's nominee to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens has experience as a judge. But for many even that's not a requirement – barely over half, 52 percent, call it a strong factor.

Click here for a PDF with charts and questionnaire.

Other personal attributes, including items such as the nominee's race, sex, religion and sexual orientation, are not issues for sizable majorities, anywhere from 71 to 83 percent.

There's been a 10-point drop in the number of Americans who see the court as "too conservative" and an 8-point rise in those who call it "too liberal" since Obama's first nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, took her seat on the bench in August. Still a plurality, 46 percent, say it's generally balanced in its decisions, near the average in ABC/Post polls since 1986.

Regardless, 65 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say they're comfortable with Obama nominating the next justice, which the president says he'll do by the end of May. That comfort level – substantially higher than Obama's approval ratings overall and on specific issues – seems to reflect a longstanding public view of such nominations as chiefly a presidential prerogative. In polls since 1987 every nominee save two has achieved majority support; those were the unsuccessful Robert Bork and Harriet Miers.

Comfort with Obama making the selection takes in three in four moderates and two-thirds of independents, dropping sharply to around one in three conservatives, Republicans and evangelical white Protestants. Perhaps surprisingly, among those who'd like to see Roe v. Wade overturned – just fewer than four in 10 adults – nearly half nonetheless are comfortable with Obama making the pick.

ATTRIBUTES – Eight in 10 say they would not consider it a factor, pro or con, if the next nominee were a woman or African-American; among the rest, most view these attributes as positives, and strongly so. Eight in 10 also say it doesn't matter if the next nominee is Protestant (Stevens is the last remaining Protestant on the court); the rest divide on whether that would be a positive or a negative factor.

Seventy-one percent say it wouldn't matter in their assessment if Obama's choice were gay or lesbian. On this attribute, however, nearly all the rest say they'd see it as a negative, and nearly all of them feel strongly about it. Opposition to a gay nominee is most intense among evangelical white Protestants (51 percent of whom see that as a strong factor against) and to a lesser extent Republicans and conservatives (40 and 34 percent, respectively).

On other attributes, far more Americans prize a judicial background over experience outside the legal profession. As noted, 70 percent see experience as a judge as a factor in favor of a nominee, including 52 percent who feel that way strongly. In contrast, only 35 percent see experience in business or politics as a positive factor; indeed 26 percent see such experience negatively.

In recent decades Supreme Court justices mostly have come up through the judicial ranks, but history is dotted with exceptions, such as Earl Warren, a three-term California governor who became chief justice for the court's momentous civil rights rulings of the 1950s and 1960s.

IDEOLOGY – Americans appear to notice as the ideological pendulum swings on the Supreme Court. The number who say it tends to be too conservative in its decisions has declined from 31 percent in 2007, after John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined the court, to 21 percent now. Today 26 percent view the court as too liberal, up from 18 percent in 2007.

Views of the court have followed a similar pattern for years, with appointments of new justices – and sometimes landmark rulings – seemingly influencing views of its ideological position.

ABORTION – On the abortion issue, a frequent focus in discussion of court appointments, the public by 59-38 percent says the next justice should vote to uphold rather than overturn the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. That's about the same as last summer, 60 percent, and close to the average, 62 percent, in ABC/Post polls since 2005.

Among those who favor upholding the ruling, 76 percent are comfortable with Obama nominating the next justice; that declines to 48 percent – still nearly half – among those who would like to scrap Roe v. Wade, suggesting their view on abortion isn't the key driver of their view on Obama making the choice.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 22-25, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.

ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollingunit.