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Poll Shows People Support Checks and Balances, But Want More Limits on Supreme Court Justices

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Despite their support of checks and balances and desire for minimal changes in the Constitution, the American public favors a series of populist changes in our system of government, according to the results of a poll on the US Constitution prepared by Penn Schoen Berland for the Aspen Institute and released today at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Initiatives receiving public support include direct election of Supreme Court justices, elimination of the Electoral College, and the addition of amendments by national referenda.

The poll suggests that, while the public may be dissatisfied with recent administrations and the partisan political environment, they remain reasonably satisfied with the governmental framework set out in the Constitution. By 64 to 19 they endorse the system of checks and balances as necessary to prevent one branch from dominating the Government.

Freedom of speech was seen as far and away the single most important right guaranteed by the Constitution, and, as a corollary, only 28 percent believe the press has too much freedom. The poll covered well over 100 questions on the details of the constitutional system of government and was conducted with over 1000 Americans. The complete presentation is on the Aspen website (link).

By a margin of 6 to 1 (61 to 10 percent) Americans believe that the Constitution should safeguard even more rights, and name gender equality as the right most deserving of constitutional protection. Majorities support guarantees of equality, of the right to privacy, of the right to own property and even the right to an education. 55 percent support the right to equality regardless of sexual orientation while 47 percent thinks the right to healthcare should be constitutionally protected as well.

Two areas in which Americans are split are how best to interpret the Constitution and whether it protects some Americans more than others. While Republicans support a literal interpretation of the text and Democrats a more living interpretation consistent with the times, Independents are split down the middle, making this the single most contentious constitutional issue polled.

Additionally, upper-income Americans see the Constitution as protecting all Americans equally while lower-income Americans are less certain it provides equal treatment for all.

In another contentious area, respondents rank protecting national security as slightly more important than protecting civil liberties by a margin of 44 to 39. And while 31 percent disagree, 56 percent of Americans can see circumstances in which the police should be allowed to violate civil liberties for national security -- giving support for the so-called ticking time bomb exception when extraordinary means might be sanctioned to secure needed information.

When it comes to the Supreme Court, the public disagrees with the underpinnings of their recent ruling that extends free speech rights to corporations. By a narrow 41 to 51 percent the public also rejects giving corporations the same rights as citizens. They were more hostile to rights for criminals and terrorists, with most believing that terrorists should be treated differently than ordinary criminals.

With two wars and high unemployment it is not surprising that 71 percent say they are dissatisfied with the way the federal government operates today, believing that too much partisanship is dragging down the system. A supermajority (68 percent) believes the system today is operating worse than was intended by the framers of the Constitution.

When it comes to fixing to the system, voters zero in on the judiciary branch as most ripe for extensive changes. 69 percent call for a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices and 66 percent favor term limits. Most significantly, by a margin of 51 to 34 the public favors popular election of Supreme Court justices, which follows the recent trend in some states that have chosen to elect their top justices. It is the most dramatic change to the system that the poll respondents favor.

74 percent agree it is time to abolish the Electoral College and have direct popular vote for the president. The public also favors by 49 to 41 holding national referenda for constitutional amendments.

They reject, however, lowering the age requirement or changing the citizenship requirements for president, as well as the possibility of a third consecutive presidential term. The poll shows significant support for a third term after waiting four years but even that falls short of a majority.

The public is also willing to consider 4-year terms for House members but most oppose it today. And a 49 percent plurality favors full representation in Congress for the District of Columbia.

The findings of the poll suggest that the public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has not spilled over into widespread dissatisfaction with the constitution. There is no appetite here for changing to a parliamentary system or eliminating the checks and balances that tend to slow down change and require consensus before action. Instead the voters are sending one clear message -- they want more direct power, not in the hands of the politicians, but in the hands of the people, giving them more control over the judiciary and election of the president.

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