In January 2016, a claim began circulating that ten percent of college graduates believed that television’s Judge Judy was one of the nine Supreme Court justices:
Ten percent of the survey pool thinks Judge Judy is a Supreme Court Justice? https://t.co/xKhQoOIuBq
— The Florida Bar (@theflabar) January 17, 2016
A 14 January 2016 article titled “10% of College Graduates think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court” reported:
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released a new report entitled “A Crisis in Civic Education” at the beginning of 2016. Based on the numbers in the report as well as those available from other reputable sources such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), we truly do have a crisis on our hands.
“There is a crisis in American civic education. Survey after survey shows that recent college graduates are alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage. They cannot identify the term lengths of members of Congress, the substance of the First Amendment, or the origin of the separation of powers. They do not know the Father of the Constitution, and nearly 10% say that Judith Sheindlin—‘Judge Judy’—is on the Supreme Court. Studies show that our colleges and universities are doing little or nothing to address the knowledge gap. A recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) of over 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities found that only a handful—18%—require students to take even one survey course in American history or government before they graduate.”
The findings were widely presented as definitive; “survey after survey” revealed that one out of ten college graduates was foolish enough to believe Judge Judy was a Supreme Court justice. Without much further scrutiny, the claim was reproduced by several web sites, including US Weekly, Mic, Washington Times, the New York Daily News, Fox News, and even a sub-site of the New York Times.
Although the claim made for a compelling headline, it also appeared to be materially misleading. (A popular TV judge might have advised its proponents not to pee on her leg and tell her it’s raining.) ACTA’s results were commonly reported as having been culled from “over 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities,” but the precise number of respondents didn’t appear to be clearly delineated in either the original report [PDF] (titled “A Crisis in Civic Education”) or coverage of its findings. In its introductory paragraph, ACTA described its overall mission:
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is an independent, nonprofit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities. Founded in 1995, ACTA is the only national organization dedicated to working with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high quality education at an affordable price. Our network consists of alumni and trustees from more than 1,100 colleges and universities, including over 20,000 current board members.
On 20 January 2016, the Washington Post published an item titled “Don’t believe that splashy finding that 10 percent of college graduates think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court”; in it, John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, observed:
Reading this, you might have the impression that 10 percent of college graduates said that “Judge Judy” was on the Supreme Court. But if we take a look at the actual survey question, a different interpretation emerges. The question was:
Which of the following people serves on the U.S. Supreme Court?
a. Elena Kagan
b. Lawrence Warren Pierce
c. John Kerry
d. Judith Sheindlin
As Sides correctly stated, the survey question didn’t ask college graduates whether Judge Judy sat on the Supreme Court’s bench. Instead, the judge’s full name, Judith Sheindlin (not nearly as widely well-known as the title “Judge Judy”) was listed among other plausible-sounding monikers from which respondents could choose.
One could argue that well-educated undergraduates ought to be able to list off all current Supreme Court justices, but, as Sides noted, there’s no indication that any participants were aware Sheindlin was “Judge Judy” or chose her name far more frequently than that of Pierce:
Perhaps “Lawrence Warren Pierce” was the most common second choice because his name sounds “judicial.” (It is highly unlikely that respondents would have recognized his name and identified him as a judge.) It is comforting that relatively few chose Kerry, who at least is a visible figure in an entirely different government position.
Had option “d.” been listed as “Judge Judy,” it would have been much more reasonable to tar America’s college students with the results of such a survey. However, the use of Sheindlin’s popular television title contrasted with its absence on the actual survey in question made the claim at best misleading, and at worst dishonest.