The latest New York Times CBS Poll shows just 44 percent of Americans approve the job the Supreme Court is doing. Fully three-quarters say justices’ decisions are sometimes influenced by their personal political views.
The trend is clearly downward. Approval of the Court reached 66 percent in the late 1980s, and by 2000 had slipped to around 50 percent.
As the Times points out, the decline may stem in part from Americans’ growing distrust in recent years of major institutions in general and the government in particular.
But it’s just as likely to reflect a sense that the Court is more political, especially after it divided in such partisan ways in the 5-4 decisions Bush v. Gore (which decided the 2000 presidential race) and Citizen’s United (which in 2010 opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign spending).
Americans’ diminishing respect for the Court can be heard on the right and left of our increasingly polarized political spectrum.
A few months ago, while a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich stated that the political branches were “not bound” by the Supreme Court. Gingrich is known for making bizarre claims. The remarkable thing about this one was the silence with which it was greeted, not only by other Republican hopefuls but also by Democrats.
Last week I was on a left-leaning radio talk show whose host suddenly went on a riff about how the Constitution doesn’t really give the Supreme Court the power to overturn laws for being unconstitutional, and it shouldn’t have that power.
All this is deeply dangerous for the Court, and for our system of government.
Almost 225 years ago, Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist (Number 78, June 14, 1788) noted the fragility of our third branch of government, whose power rests completely on public respect for its judgement:
The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. [Yet lacking sword or purse, the judiciary] is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its co-ordinate branches; and that as nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence as permanency in office, this quality may therefore be justly regarded as an indispensable ingredient in its constitution, and, in a great measure, as the citadel of the public justice and the public security.
The immediate question is whether the Chief Justice, John Roberts, understands the tenuous position of the Court he now runs. If he does, he’ll do whatever he can to avoid another 5-4 split on the upcoming decision over the constitutionality of the Obama healthcare law.
My guess is he’ll try to get Anthony Kennedy to join with him and with the four Democratic appointees to uphold the law’s constitutionality, relying primarily on an opinion by Judge Laurence Silberman of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia – a Republican appointee with impeccable conservative credentials, who found the law to be constitutional.
Robert Reich served as the 22nd United States Secretary of Labor under President William Jefferson Clinton from 1992 to 1997. He shares many of his thoughts and columns at Robert Reich, where this post first appeared.