New poll: 55% of Americans say nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court is not ‘important’

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With President Biden set to announce a nominee to replace the retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer by the end of February, most Americans now say they’re lukewarm about his promise to pick a Black woman for the first time in U.S. history, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll — while also saying the top three Black women on Biden’s shortlist are “qualified” to sit on the court.

The survey of 1,628 U.S. adults, which was conducted from Feb. 3 to 7, found that a clear majority of those polled (55 percent) say nominating a Black woman is either “not very” (19 percent) or “not at all” (36 percent) important to them. Just 23 percent say it is “very important.”

Predictably, the overall number who say nominating a Black woman is either very or somewhat important is much higher among Democrats (80 percent) and 2020 Biden voters (78 percent) than among independents (35 percent), Republicans (16 percent) or 2020 Donald Trump voters (10 percent).

Likewise, just 36 percent of Americans say Biden’s pledge was a “good idea,” while the rest say it was either “a bad idea” (32 percent) or “neither good nor bad” (32 percent). And just a third of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence that Biden will select “the right kind of person” to replace Breyer on the court (33 percent), or that they themselves expect to support the nominee Biden puts forward (34 percent) — noticeably lower than the 39 percent who said they expected to support “President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee” in September 2020, just before he nominated Amy Coney Barrett.

One possible explanation for this tepid response is that many Americans seem to believe that their leaders can and should choose only “the most qualified” person regardless of race, gender or politics — an ideal they think Biden failed to live up to when he explicitly limited the pool to Black women.

Yet the striking thing is that the vast majority of those same Americans polled — and a smaller but still significant majority of Republicans — agree that all three of the Black women reportedly at the top of Biden’s shortlist meet the standards for qualification.

The results of the poll are unambiguous. When shown a name, photograph and a brief résumé, including age, education and prior experience, the share of Americans who say that Ketanji Brown Jackson, Leondra Kruger and J. Michelle Childs are either “very” or “somewhat” qualified to “sit on the Supreme Court” hovers at around two-thirds.

For all the controversy and consternation over Biden’s decision to consider only Black women, that represents a remarkable degree of consensus in a country as divided as the U.S.

All three were listed as “potential Supreme Court nominee[s]” but not as “potential Biden Supreme Court nominee[s].” Given the context, many partisan respondents likely assumed that they were candidates on Biden’s shortlist and then took that into account when rating their qualifications, for better or worse.

Childs was identified as 55 years old; a graduate of University of South Carolina Law School, with a legal master’s degree from Duke University Law School; a former senior partner in a South Carolina law firm; and a current judge on the U.S. Circuit Appeals Court for South Carolina who has been nominated to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. A full 70 percent of Americans say Childs is qualified to sit on the court, including 60 percent of Republicans.

Jackson was identified as 51 years old; a graduate of Harvard Law School; a former clerk for a Supreme Court justice; and a current judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. A full 69 percent of Americans say Jackson is qualified to sit on the court, including 57 percent of Republicans.

Kruger was identified as 45 years old; a graduate of Yale Law School; a former clerk for a Supreme Court justice; and a current judge on the California Supreme Court. A full 65 percent of Americans say Kruger is qualified to sit on the court, including 53 percent of Republicans.

As a point of comparison, the poll also asked whether three former Supreme Court candidates — Amy Coney Barrett, Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas — were qualified to serve at the time when they were either nominated or considered for a seat.

Judges J. Michelle Childs, Leondra Kruger and Ketanji Brown Jackson. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Charles Dharapak/AP, Jeff Chiu/AP, Tom Williams/Pool via Roll Call via Getty Images)Judges J. Michelle Childs, Leondra Kruger and Ketanji Brown Jackson. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Charles Dharapak/AP, Jeff Chiu/AP, Tom Williams/Pool via Roll Call via Getty Images)

Judges J. Michelle Childs, Leondra Kruger and Ketanji Brown Jackson. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Charles Dharapak/AP, Jeff Chiu/AP, Tom Williams/Pool via Roll Call via Getty Images)

Left unsaid — but presumably widely known — was the fact former President Donald Trump appointed Barrett to the court and President Barack Obama nominated Garland, who was then blocked by a Republican Senate. Thomas, who was shortlisted for the Supreme Court under Obama, was included in the survey to gauge whether a relatively “generic” older white male candidate would generate higher ratings.

He did not — nor did Barrett or Garland, at least not overall.

Despite the polarized reactions among partisans — Democrats (59 percent) were 21 points less likely than Republicans (80 percent) to rate Barrett as qualified; Republicans (59 percent) were 23 points less likely than Democrats (82 percent) to rate Garland as qualified — their combined ratings among Americans as a whole (67 percent each) were statistically indistinguishable from the ratings of the three Black women on Biden’s shortlist.

Meanwhile, Thomas, a graduate of the University of Montana Law School who served as chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (covering the Western U.S.), was actually rated the least qualified of all the candidates, at 63 percent.

This raises an intriguing question: If today’s leading Black women candidates are as qualified as their predecessors to sit on the court, why do so many Americans seem uncomfortable with Biden’s decision to focus on inclusion by considering only judges of that particular race and gender?

As anyone who has followed a Supreme Court confirmation process over the last several decades knows, there has never been a justice selected on qualifications alone. Politics and identity always enter into the equation. For most of U.S. history, only white men were considered for the job. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan said, “One of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration will be filled by the most qualified woman I can possibly find.” And after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020, President Trump said, “I will be putting forth a nominee next week. It will be a woman.”

Tellingly, about twice as many Republicans say the pledges from Reagan (31 percent) and Trump (28 percent) were a “good idea” than say the same about Biden’s (14 percent), while the number of Democrats who say Trump’s pledge was a good idea (45 percent) is 22 points lower than the number who say Biden’s was (67 percent). Partisanship plays a significant role here.

Yet regardless of how elastic the definition of “qualified” appears to be, evidence of the power and persistence of the ideal that it can be defined — and then applied dispassionately to the Supreme Court confirmation process — is everywhere. Earlier this month, for instance, ABC News and Ipsos asked whether Americans want Biden to “consider all possible nominees” or “only nominees who are Black women, as he has pledged to do.” More than three-quarters (76 percent) said they want the president to break his pledge and consider all possible nominees.

While that question framed Biden’s promise as exclusionary rather than inclusionary, even the more neutral options provided in the new Yahoo News/YouGov poll reveal that many (if not most) Americans say they would rather their leaders ignore politics and identity in pursuit of some Platonic vision of unalloyed merit.

Asked whether “the best possible candidate should be chosen regardless of race, gender or sexuality” or whether “the best possible Supreme Court should include qualified justices with a variety of backgrounds and experiences,” the former beats the latter by 8 percentage points, 49 percent to 41 percent.

President Biden stands at a lectern in the White House.President Biden stands at a lectern in the White House.

President Biden speaks on the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in the White House on Jan. 27. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A follow-up about the role that ideology should play in a senator’s decision to confirm or reject a nominee exposes an even clearer preference, with the vast majority of Americans saying it’s more important for senators to consider whether “the nominee is qualified to serve on the court” (72 percent) than whether “the nominee will rule the way the senator wants on major issues” (10 percent). Unusually, the numbers among Democrats, Republicans and independents were essentially identical on this question.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of all three groups see Biden’s leading candidates as qualified — at least for now. Once an actual nominee emerges and the confirmation process begins in earnest, it’s likely that politics will reshape perceptions of her qualifications. But at the moment, before all that, roughly 4 in 10 Americans rate each of the Black women on Biden’s shortlist as “very” qualified: 37 percent for Kruger; 39 percent for Childs; 42 percent for Jackson.

Those numbers are on par with — or higher than — Garland’s (41 percent) and Barrett’s (37 percent).

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,628 U.S. adults interviewed online from Feb. 3 to 7, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or nonvote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.7 percent.