It was last fall when a national Grinnell College/Selzer poll found 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.”
As regular readers may recall, around the same time, a Gallup poll also showed public attitudes toward the high court sliding to the lowest level since the pollster started asking the question a couple of decades ago.
The latest national Monmouth University survey, released yesterday, suggested that the high court’s public standing is not improving.
Public opinion of the Supreme Court has grown negative since the leak of a pending decision to overturn Roe. More than half (52%) of Americans currently disapprove of the job the court is doing while just 38% approve. Two months ago, the court had an evenly divided rating of 42% approve to 42% disapprove.
Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth’s Polling Institute, noted, “Recent public opinion of the Supreme Court has not been immune to political tribalism, but it was not nearly as polarized as other institutions. With news of a pending reversal of Roe, though, the court is now seen through the same stark partisan lens as other political players in Washington.”
What’s more, these findings are bolstered by related data. My MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones highlighted a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, published this week, which “showed a significant decline in Americans’ confidence in the Supreme Court, spanning from conservative Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the court in 2020 to last week’s revelation that the court is preparing to overturn federal abortion rights.”
To the degree that Roberts wants Americans to respect the high court as a fair arbiter and trusted institution, that mystique, if it ever existed in earnest, is gone.
Part of what makes the polls’ findings notable is the fact that some justices have actually tried pushing public attitudes in a different direction. Last year, for example, Justice Stephen Breyer — months before his retirement announcement —released a poorly timed book, which argued that the nation’s highest court shouldn’t be seen as a partisan political institution, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Around the same time, Justice Amy Coney Barrett also tried to defend the Supreme Court’s political impartiality. A week later, Justice Clarence Thomas insisted that justices aren’t “politicians,” and it’s the court’s critics, and not the court’s rulings, that are “going to jeopardize any faith in the legal institutions.”
But 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 last week, 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.”
Now, of course, those same justices are also poised to uproot the reproductive rights protections Americans have enjoyed for nearly a half-century.
The justices’ extra-curricular activities don’t help, either. Justice Samuel Alito, for example, has delivered a series of provocative speeches with an unmistakable political bent. 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 GOP 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 at the time.
Is it any wonder why some find her assurances hard to believe?