A couple of years ago, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett made a public appearance in which the conservative jurist declared, “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.” The broader context of her remarks didn’t help with her pitch: Barrett spoke alongside Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who rushed her onto the bench as part of a brazenly political scheme.
Her comments, however, reflected a larger goal: The more the Supreme Court’s dominant conservative majority positions the institution as a political force, the more some of its justices urge the public not to believe their lying eyes.
Indeed, Barrett isn’t the only sitting justice who’s expressed an eagerness to defend the high court’s alleged impartiality. Just last week, Justice Brett Kavanaugh spoke at a judicial conference in Minnesota and insisted that the Supreme Court is “an institution of law not of politics, not of partisanship.” The conservative added that he believes that the current line-up of justices has succeeded in “deciding cases based on law and not based on partisan affiliation and partisanship.”
Part of the problem with the pitch is that the jurists’ record belies their assurances, but the other part of the problem is that much of the public just isn’t buying what these justices are selling. The latest national poll from Quinnipiac University included these results:
Americans give the United States Supreme Court a negative 35 — 55 percent job approval rating. ... Seventy percent of Americans think that Supreme Court justices are too influenced by politics, while 23 percent do not think that Supreme Court justices are too influenced by politics.
It’s worth emphasizing for context that 70% of Americans don’t agree on much, but they agree on this.
What’s more, the relative consensus in public attitudes is quite broad: A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents all share the belief that Supreme Court justices are too influenced by politics.
Before anyone says, “Sure, but this is just one poll,” let’s not forget just how common results like these are. The latest NBC News poll, released last month, found the high court’s standing at the lowest point “since NBC News began measuring public sentiment about the court” more than 30 years ago.
If these results were outliers, it might be easier to discard them, but the opposite is true. As we recently discussed, Americans increasingly believe the Supreme Court has been politicized. In 2021, a national Grinnell College/Selzer poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans agree that politics drives Supreme Court rulings. 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 at the time. “The court faces a public convinced that its decisions are about politics rather than the Constitution.”
Now, as a FiveThirtyEight analysis recently explained, public support for the Supreme Court continues to sink.
Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, implicitly acknowledging the high court’s recent ethics controversies, conceded yesterday, “The Supreme Court needs to get their house in order, and I hope they will.”
Since it appears unlikely that the justices will act on their own, Senate Democrats are championing an ethics reform bill, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the measure today. Watch this space.
This post updates our related earlier coverage.