In recent weeks, two members of the U.S. Supreme Court’s far-right majority — Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito — have delivered public remarks intended to bolster public confidence in the institution they serve. As USA Today reported, the latest Gallup poll suggests their defenses aren’t exactly proving persuasive.
Only 47% of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the high court, a 20-percentage point drop from 2020 and a 7-percentage point drop from the previous year. This year marks the lowest trust level among Americans since 1972. Job approval of the Supreme Court also took a hit, as only 40% of those polled said they approved of the job done by the court, an 18-percentage point drop from 2020, tying for the lowest approval numbers found by Gallup.
It might be tempting to think this is just one survey, and it’s best not to make too big a fuss about a single poll, but there’s other recent data pointing in the same direction.
As regular readers may recall, it was about a year ago when a national Grinnell College/Selzer poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans agree that politics drives Supreme Court rulings. In fact, the usual partisan divisions were unimportant: Democrats, Republicans and independents all answered the same question in roughly the same way.
“This is a nightmare scenario for Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to protect the court’s reputation as an apolitical institution,” Grinnell College National Poll Director Peter Hanson said. “The court faces a public convinced that its decisions are about politics rather than the Constitution.”
While sitting justices clearly want Americans not to be cynical about the institution, to borrow a Rachel Maddow phrase, the court seems to have a watch-what-they-do-not-what-they-say problem.
Sure, the justices claim that they simply exercise their best judgment, without regard for ideology or politics, but it’s tough to miss the direction of the institution under the control of Republican-appointed justices.
As Dana Milbank explained in a column in May, the current court has “blessed partisan gerrymandering, giving Republicans representation in the House disproportionate to their share of the electorate. It has allowed elections to be decided by billionaires and corporations spending unlimited sums of untraceable money. It has kneecapped labor unions, co-signed voter-suppression schemes by Republican-run states and eviscerated the civil rights-era Voting Rights Act, to disastrous effect for Black and brown voters.”
In the weeks that followed Milbank’s piece, the court’s far-right majority also curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to address the climate crisis, blocked states from addressing gun violence, and took a sledgehammer to the wall of separation between church and state.
And did I mention that those same justices also handed down Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade, and uprooting the reproductive rights protections that Americans had for nearly a half-century?
The justices’ extracurricular activities don’t help, either. Alito, for example, has delivered a series of provocative speeches with an unmistakable political bent. Justice Clarence Thomas recently attended a political event hosted by a conservative think tank, where he was celebrated by the Republicans’ Senate leader.
In February, Justice Neil Gorsuch spoke to the Florida chapter of the Federalist Society, where journalists were told they were not allowed to hear what he had to say.
A few months earlier, Justice Amy Coney Barrett tried to defend the Supreme Court’s political impartiality — while speaking alongside Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who rushed her onto the bench during the 2020 presidential election as part of a brazenly political display, and who invited the justice to speak at a University of Louisville center that bears his name.
“My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks,” Barrett said a year ago this month.
Is it any wonder why some find her assurances hard to believe?