On April 7, 2017, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as the 113th judge of the United States Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation brought an end to months of political tension and partisan gridlock following the death of Judge Antonin Scalia in February of 2016, resulting in an open seat that Senate Republicans refused to cede to Judge Merrick Garland. In light of these events, the Millennial Caucus conducted a survey seeking to compile UVA students’ sentiments regarding Judge Gorsuch, the nature of the Supreme Court, and its importance in modern politics.
Unsurprisingly, the majority (73%) of students strongly agreed that decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court impact their daily lives. One respondent pointed to landmark cases such as Obergefell vs. Hodges and Roe vs. Wade, which guaranteed the rights to same-sex marriage and expanded women’s abortion privileges, respectively. Another student echoed this sentiment by calling the Supreme Court the “pulse of tolerance and progress of society.”
The remaining students who chose “somewhat agree” were more technical with their justifications, specifically explaining that they “rarely see a direct impact on my life.” However, while one respondent agreed that “the decisions don’t affect my daily life,” she further added that “as a woman, [the Supreme Court’s] decisions on women’s reproductive rights can have a huge impact on me in given circumstances.” Almost all respondents were at least partially in agreement that the Supreme Court wields exceptional power, issuing decisions that “affect government at all levels and influence the moral fabric of our society.”
To that end, it is somewhat surprising that only 52% of respondents considered the issue of Supreme Court appointments as “very important” during the 2016 Presidential election. Those who did cited the lifelong tenure as a mechanism to “indirectly carry out the wills and policies of the President” with the potential to “affect decades of court decisions.”
For those who viewed the vacancy of Judge Scalia’s seat as “somewhat important” or “not very important,” many explained that they trusted their chosen presidential candidate enough to nominate an acceptable replacement. One student explained that he “ voted for [my chosen candidate] because I knew they would nominate someone I stood behind.” Others took a similar approach, arguing that a candidate’s position on specific policies was a much more salient indicator of their presidential fitness than their potential Supreme Court nominees.
Given the relatively lukewarm response of UVA students to issues regarding the Supreme Court, it is fairly unsurprising that there was significant variation regarding the best future changes. Nearly 32% of respondents desired 18-year appointments for justices instead of lifelong appointments, arguing that the deviation from the four year election cycle will “keep judges shielded from campaigns” and “insulate [them] from partisan influences.” However, this change is unlikely to reduce the partisanship inherent to a Supreme Court appointment--the current President would still be responsible for the nomination. Furthermore, in the event that the White House and the Senate are composed of different parties, a Supreme Court seat could remain empty for years due to gridlock.
Another 17% advocated for televised oral arguments in lieu of the current system, where only written transcripts are available for public use. One student argued that “citizens would benefit from more exposure to the process,” and another reiterated that televised oral arguments would “make the court more accessible to the general public.” Another 40% of respondents took a different approach, voting in favor of either gender, racial, or geographic diversity amongst Supreme Court justices. Students argued that a court that is “more representative of the American population” would lead to “compassion and fairness,” implying that the current Supreme Court is neither compassionate nor fair.
The tendency of UVA students to view the Supreme Court as a less important matter overall helps explain the confounding nature of responses regarding President Trump’s criticism of judges who did not support his travel ban. While 95% of students characterized the criticism as inappropriate to some degree, the corresponding explanation exemplified an interesting discrepancy.
A large portion of the 35% of students who “not very appropriate - the travel ban is unconstitutional” aired their grievances with the travel ban--and did not mention the Supreme Court. One student argued that “the travel ban very clearly target[s] those of Muslim faith,” and another bolstered this by explaining that “this is religious-based discrimination and discrimination against religion is unconstitutional.” While these concerns are valid, the preoccupation with the nature of the proposed policy itself, in lieu of the actual judicial process, supports the findings above that millennials view the Supreme Court as a secondary concern.
For the 60% of students who were concerned about the perceived disruption of separation of powers, the majority of explanations centered around the actual topic of the question. One respondent articulated that “the judicial branch exists specifically as a check on unconstitutional action by the executive or the legislative branches.” Another elaborated further, explaining that “as long as he’s only criticizing the judges...I think judges are quite capable of standing up for themselves and continuing to remain independent.”
In sum, UVA students view the Supreme Court as more of an afterthought than as a key electoral issue. It is therefore unsurprising that only 12% of survey respondents were able to name all eight sitting justices (this survey was conducted before Judge Gorsuch was officially confirmed). A recent C-SPAN poll showed that only 27% of millennials can name even one Supreme Court justice, bolstering the idea that the youngest voting bloc is fairly removed from any updates or changes surrounding America’s highest court.
This knowledge will prove immensely useful in upcoming presidential elections, especially now that millennials have officially surpassed baby boomers as the largest living generation. There were many Republicans who voted for Donald Trump due to the possibility of a new conservative justice. In fact, this was often the linchpin of the Republican Party’s platform, given the notoriously divisive nature of the Donald Trump campaign.
However, future presidential candidates should not use any potential Supreme Court vacancies as a marketing tool for millennials. There are many other salient talking points that will grasp voters’ attention quicker and more effectively, including unemployment, the job market, and uncontrollable student debt. Every minute counts, so as long as millennials are concerned, don’t waste them on the Supreme Court.