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Poll: Most Oppose High Court Life Tenure

November 28, 2004

WASHINGTON – Six in 10 Americans say there should be a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices, according to an Associated Press poll.

The survey found public support for an idea that has arisen periodically in Congress without ever making headway.

Only one of the nine current justices is younger than 65. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, appointed to the court by President Nixon, has thyroid cancer. In the survey, people were asked if they could identify what job Rehnquist held, and 59 percent did not know.

The appointment of justices without term limits or a mandatory retirement age historically has helped to insulate the court from politics, said Dennis Hutchinson, a Supreme Court expert from the University of Chicago Law School. At the same time, that can have the unintended consequence of letting some justices serve beyond their most effective years.

People over 65 were among those most likely to favor mandatory retirement, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

The question on retirement mentioned no specific retirement age. Lifetime appointment of Supreme Court justices is dictated by the Constitution and could be changed only by an amendment.

“The justices hold office year after year,” said Opal Bristow, an 84-year-old Democrat and retired teacher who lives near San Antonio. “Some of them are old codgers who need to get out of the way and let the younger folks with fresh ideas come in.”

Over the years, justices frequently have served into their 70s and 80s and often have died in office. In the past few decades, it has become more common for justices to step down when they face serious illnesses.

If President Bush has to nominate a replacement for any of the nine justices, the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that allowed legal abortions in the first three months of pregnancy is certain to be a central issue.

The survey found that 59 percent of respondents said they favor choosing a nominee who would uphold Roe v. Wade, while 31 percent wanted a nominee who would overturn the ruling.

While the public is generally divided on the abortion issue, polling consistently has found a clear majority of people who think abortion should be legal in at least some cases.

The preference for Supreme Court nominees who would uphold Roe v. Wade could be found among both men and women, most age groups, most income groups and people living in urban, suburban and rural areas. Fewer than half of Republicans, evangelicals and those over 65 said they favored a nominee who would uphold the abortion ruling.

“While I don’t have a strong feeling about abortions personally, I wouldn’t want the law overturned and return to the days of backdoor abortions,” said Colleen Dunn, 40, a Republican and community college teacher who lives outside Philadelphia.

The survey found that 61 percent of respondents said Supreme Court nominees should state their position on abortion before being approved for the job.

Most of those who have taken a position on whether a nominee should uphold or overturn Roe v. Wade say they wanted a nominee to state his position on abortion before confirmation. Almost two-thirds of each group said they would want to know.

“In a perfect world they wouldn’t have to talk about it,” said Kenneth Cole, 39, a consultant from Columbus, Ohio, and a Republican who leans toward wanting Roe v. Wade overturned. “But whoever President Bush nominates, people will know where they stand. They won’t be able to avoid the issue.”

Another issue the Supreme Court will have to deal with at some point is homosexual marriage.

By 61 percent to 35 percent, people opposed gay marriage, with young adults between 18 and 29 about evenly split. Recent polls have indicated people are about evenly divided on the question of civil unions, which would provide many of the same legal protections as gay marriage.

The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults was taken Nov. 19-21 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.




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