On Monday, the nine justices of the US supreme court will take their seats at the start of a new judicial year, even as the shock waves of the panel’s previous seismic term continue to reverberate across America.
In their first full term that ended in June, the court’s new six-to-three hard-right supermajority astounded the nation by tearing up decades of settled law. They eviscerated the right to an abortion, loosened America’s already lax gun laws, erected roadblocks to combating the climate crisis, and awarded religious groups greater say in public life.
The fallout of the spate of extreme rightwing rulings has shaken public confidence in the political neutrality of the court. A Gallup poll this week found that fewer than half of US adults trust it – a drop of 20 points in just two years and the lowest rating since Gallup began recording the trend in 1972.
Justices have begun to respond to the pressure by sparring openly in public. The Wall Street Journal reported that in recent speeches the liberal justice Elena Kagan has accused her conservative peers of damaging the credibility of the court by embracing Republican causes.
Samuel Alito, who wrote the decision overturning the right to an abortion in Roe v Wade, counter-accused Kagan (whom he did not name) of crossing “an important line” by implying the court was becoming illegitimate.
To add insult to injury, Ginni Thomas, the extreme conservative activist married to Justice Clarence Thomas, was questioned on Thursday by the House committee investigating Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert the 2020 presidential election result, which she avidly encouraged.
With so much discord in plain sight, you might have expected the new supermajority created under Trump to opt for a calmer year ahead. No chance.
The choice of cases to be decided in the new term spells full steam ahead. “I see no signs of them slowing down,” said Tara Groves, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. [Continue reading…]
The Supreme Court’s authority within the American political system is both immense and fragile. Somebody has to provide the last word in interpreting the Constitution, and — this is the key — to do so in a way that is seen as fair and legitimate by the people at large.
What happens when a majority of Americans don’t see it that way?
A common response to this question is to say the justices shouldn’t care. They aren’t there to satisfy the majority or to be swayed by the shifting winds of public opinion. That is partly true: The court’s most important obligations include safeguarding the constitutional rights of vulnerable minorities who can’t always count on protection from the political process and acting independently of political interests.
But in the bigger picture, the court nearly always hews close to where the majority of the American people are. If it does diverge, it should take care to do so in a way that doesn’t appear partisan. That is the basis of the trust given to the court by the public.
That trust, in turn, is crucial to the court’s ability to exercise the vast power Americans have granted it. The nine justices have no control over money, as Congress does, or force, as the executive branch does. All they have is their black robes and the public trust. A court that does not keep that trust cannot perform its critical role in American government. [Continue reading…]