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Polls Show Americans Torn Over Preferred Character of Judges

By Jerry Markon

When the conservative-leaning Judicial Confirmation Network unveiled a Web site this week with videos blasting some of the potential replacements for retiring Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, Wendy Long, chief counsel for the Manassas-based group, told a conference call that Americans overwhelmingly favor the conservative vision of justices “who apply the law as written and don’t take into account their political agendas and policy preferences. They favor it by more than three to one.’’

Only “a tiny minority," she said, prefer what she called President Obama’s standard – “judges who make law based on personal feelings and political agendas.’’

The main poll cited by Long’s group is a 2008 election-night survey of 800 voters that was commissioned by the conservative Federalist Society and conducted by a Republican polling firm. Voters were asked if they prefer that a president nominate judges who “will interpret and apply the law as it is written and not take into account their own viewpoints and experiences’’ – or judges who “will go beyond interpreting and applying the law and take into account their own viewpoints and experiences.’’

Seventy percent of voters chose the first answer. The same poll found that 41 percent of voters favor judges with “empathy” for poor people, African-Americans and other groups, a quality Obama has often cited.

Other polls suggest a more evenly divided public on the perennially divisive question of whether the Constitution is a document with a fixed and knowable meaning – a concept known as “originalism” often cited by conservatives – or one whose principles adjust to contemporary times.

A Quinnipiac University survey of 1,783 likely voters last summer found that 52 percent said the Supreme Court should consider “changing times and current realities in applying the principles of the Constitution” as opposed to 40 percent who cited only “the original intentions of the authors of the Constitution.’’

And the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll on the subject in 2005 -- taken while the nomination of Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was pending -- found that 50 percent of adults believed the court should base rulings on "what the U.S. Constitution means in current times."

-- Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report

By Paul Volpe  |  May 22, 2009; 1:07 PM ET
Categories:  Supreme Court  
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