Vast Majorities Of American Adults Profess Support for Constitutional Concepts of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances; Those with the Best Understanding are Most Supportive
CHICAGO, Aug. 8, 2005 — At a time when tensions are running high among the branches of government, and especially between Congress and the federal courts, a large majority of American adults believe that the constitutional concept of separation of powers, and the related idea of checks and balances, are important principles for the federal government. And those with the best understanding of the concepts also demonstrate the greatest support.
But at the same time, the majority of Americans could use a civics refresher course. Just over half of adult Americans (55 percent) can correctly identify the three branches of government, fewer than half can identify the meaning of the concept of separation of powers (45 percent) or that one role of the judiciary in the federal government is to determine how existing law applies to the facts of a case (48 percent). And just over one-third (36 percent) cannot correctly identify the principle of checks and balances.
“There’s a lot of good news in this poll. It shows that the average American understands enough to know that the different branches of government have distinct roles,” said Michael S. Greco, president-elect of the American Bar Association. “But the numbers also tell us that there’s a need for more public education on how these principles work. There are some significant gaps in peoples’ knowledge, and the more people know, the more they appreciate these important constitutional concepts.”
The survey, commissioned by the ABA and conducted by Harris Interactive®, revealed that 82 percent of adult Americans feel the concept of separation of powers is important, with 61 percent feeling it is “very important.” Among the 45 percent who correctly identified the meaning of the concept as “Congress, the President and the Federal Courts each have different responsibilities,” 88 percent thought it was important.
Even more profoundly, 86 percent of adults feel that the concept of checks and balances is important, with 69 percent saying it is “very important.” And similarly, among the 64 percent who correctly identified the meaning of the concept as “A division of power among the branches of federal government that prevents any one of them from going beyond their constitutional authority,” 92 percent thought it was important.
Greco, who will become ABA president this week at the conclusion of the ABA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago, has appointed a Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers to improve public understanding of the government’s functions. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey have agreed to serve as honorary co-chairs of the commission.
Greco said broader public understanding of the separation of powers is especially important now, as certain members of Congress are threatening federal judges with impeachment and other forms of retaliation over rulings they disagreed with.
“What really distinguishes America from countries where freedom suffers is an independent judiciary, whose judges aren’t controlled or fired by the executive branch or the legislature,” said Greco, who announced the survey results at a news conference on Monday.
Harris Interactive® conducted the telephone survey on behalf of the American Bar Association between July 22 and 27, 2005 among a nationwide cross section of 1,002 U.S. adults aged 18 and over. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, income, education and region were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. In theory, with a probability sample of this size, one could say with 95 percent certainty that the results have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percent of what they would be if the entire U.S. adult population had been polled with complete accuracy.
With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law in a democratic society.