Other View: Supreme Court gets what it deserves as public approval plummets
In too many recent decisions, the court majority’s logic has appeared to be based more on ideological and even religious conviction rather than the law.
A new poll indicates the U.S. Supreme Court, once at the top of the nation’s most respected national institutions, is plummeting in public approval, with neither Republicans nor Democrats satisfied with the nine justices or their legal opinions. Only slightly more than a third of Americans trust the court. Americans also strongly disagree with justices’ lifetime tenure. Although the court shouldn’t rule by public opinion, nor will public disapproval determine its future, the judiciary branch’s behavior has justified the scrutiny it is receiving.
The abortion issue is one of the big factors affecting the court’s current decline in public approval. Controversies surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas’ repeated ethical breaches certainly don’t help the court’s image.
The precedent of earlier court rulings is supposed to provide the underpinnings to explain whatever new steps the Supreme Court takes in expanding or restricting constitutional rights. A major part of winning public acceptance of certain controversial rulings is the soundness of the legal argument surrounding it. In too many recent decisions, however, the court majority’s logic has appeared to be based more on ideological and even religious conviction rather than the law.
The more the court appears to veer in that direction, the less acceptance its decisions will have among the general public — and the higher the chances that individuals or governments will look for ways to skirt those rulings. So legitimacy matters, and the court’s legitimacy is seriously in question. In April, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York suggested the Biden administration should ignore a Texas federal judge’s ruling halting approval of the abortion-inducing drug mifepristone. She was followed by Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who also said the ruling should be ignored.
On April 21, the Supreme Court overruled the Texas judge and temporarily restored mifepristone’s legal distribution. But Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote last year’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, took issue with the 7-2 decision to maintain mifepristone’s availability, justifying his opposition by saying “the Government has not dispelled legitimate doubts that it would even obey an unfavorable order in these cases.” So Alito seems keenly aware that the court is in danger of having its decisions disobeyed.
In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released last Monday, 64% of respondents — including 55% of Republicans — opposed banning medication abortion. Only 37% overall expressed confidence in the court, with 61% of Republican men supporting it compared with only 44% of Republican women. Two-thirds of respondents favored limiting justices’ tenure and not appointing them for life.
When any branch of government veers to the ideological extremes, that’s a warning sign. If justices truly value the public’s acceptance, they must work harder to enforce a rigorous ethics policy and find a balance in legal interpretation that better resonates with the population that must cope with the consequences of their rulings.
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