Survey: Many Americans Today Would Get 'F' in Civics (Take a Pop Civics Quiz)
Ask Americans what they know about the role of courts in state government, and the answer is likely to be: not much.
In a survey conducted earlier this year for the National Center for State Courts, only 31 percent of the respondents earned a “high” ranking for their answers to a series of questions about the overall operations of state courts and their relationship to the other government branches. Another 31 percent of the respondents achieved a low knowledge index score, while 39 percent of the respondents achieved a medium score.
The results are based on a national telephone survey of 1,200 adults conducted in February and March by Princeton Survey Research Associates. (Some total responses in the report add up to more than 100 percent because percentages were rounded off.)
“When respondents are scored on the basis of their performance on this six question ‘quiz’ the results show lots of room for improvement,” according to a report on the results (PDF). “Most Americans fail to demonstrate the kind of basic knowledge about their state government that would have been required to pass a high school civics class, back when such classes were still widely taught in public schools.”
The survey results indicate that respondents with higher knowledge index scores tend to view state courts in a more positive way than respondents with lower scores. “These better-informed citizens tend to have more confidence in their state courts, are more likely to see judges’ decisions as fair, and more highly value an independent judiciary,” the report states.
Those results are cause for concern at a time when the economic recession is putting pressure on state governments to allocate dwindling revenue from taxes and fees more frugally among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. In some states, courts have been forced to cut back on services, hours and even trial calendars.
Later today, a presentation on the survey results will help kick off a national summit on the role of state courts. The summit, which will run today and Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., is being sponsored by the ABA Presidential Commission on Fair and Impartial State Courts in cooperation with the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts.
Judicial delegations from at least 34 states are expected to join bar leaders, legislators and experts on the courts to discuss strategies for responding to budgetary pressures and public reactions to cutbacks to court services. Retired Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is scheduled to give the keynote address this morning.
Recessionary pressures pose a serious threat to state courts, says ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr., who appointed the commission when he began his term in August. Wells is a partner at Maynard Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, Ala.
“One core value of the legal profession is to promote an independent judiciary,” wrote Wells in his president’s message published in the March issue of the ABA Journal. “The recession has made the issue more critical than ever. Our ability to maintain courts as an independent branch of government is undermined if they simply do not have the resources they need.”
The survey produced results that support Wells’ position. Survey respondents gave the courts a higher confidence rating than the other two branches. Of the respondents, 74 percent said they have at least some confidence in the courts, compared to 71 percent for legislatures and 65 percent for governors.
At the same time, however, only 45 percent of survey respondents said it is important that the state courts be independent, while 51 percent say the courts should pay more attention to what people think. Nearly 60 percent of the respondents say the state courts are too involved in politics, and nearly a third of the respondents would agree to closing courthouses for at least one day a week.
Editor’s Note: We dug up this civics quiz for you to test your American government history knowledge. See results for all those who’ve taken the quiz at this link.