• Marc Johnson

Supremely Political


In 1972, the Gallup organization published three massive volumes of “top line” results from all the polls that Gallup conducted since it began polling in 1935. It really is fascinating reading – at least I found it to be.

One big conclusion: Let’s just say that every president since Franklin Roosevelt would kill for his approval ratings. FDR was clearly the last president who consistently enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings.

Even at the height of the enormous controversy over Roosevelt’s plan to enlarge the Supreme Court in 1937, a proposal that never enjoyed majority support from the public according to Gallup, FDR’s personal approval numbers remained very robust. The cartoon from that period shows the Court out of step with the rest of the country and that sentiment was clearly widespread in 1937, but it never translated into public or political support for Roosevelt’s radical plan to remake the Court in his own image by appointing as many as six new liberal, New Deal-friendly justices.

Montana’s New Deal era power broker, Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, was a liberal Democrat, but he vehemently opposed Roosevelt’s “court packing” as a power grab by the executive branch. Wheeler reportedly told Roosevelt that the Supreme Court was “a religion” for many Americans and the president had prompted a fight over religion – never a good idea in politics.

In September 1937, when it had become clear that the president’s court plan was on political life support, Gallup asked in a survey if Roosevelt should continue his fight to enlarge the court. Fully 68 percent of those surveyed said “no.” The impact of the issue was enormous for FDR and for the Court.

Obviously, the integrity of the court had survived a full-frontal assault from a recently re-elected and immensely popular president. And the fallout did damage Roosevelt with a strongly Democratic Congress, while curiously not doing much harm to his overall public approval. In a way, the message from the bitter fight over the Supreme Court in 1937 – it was called at the time the “greatest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War” – was that “the Court is above politics,” or at least that the Court shouldn’t be subjected to attack on the basis of raw partisan politics.

Surveys Said…

Which brings us to three recent surveys on the current U.S. Supreme Court. One from the Pew Center shows, among other things, the Court’s overall approval rating nudging back above 50 percent. Public approval of the Court had dropped to 48 percent in the summer of 2013. At the same time there is both survey data, this time in a new Democracy Corps study,  as well as anecdotal evidence that the public more-and-more sees the Court as just an extension of politics by other means.

Here is a key takeaway from the Democracy Corps survey: “Two recent decisions on campaign finance have only served to intensify Americans’ dissatisfaction with the Court. The Citizens United ruling is deeply unpopular across every partisan and demographic group while Americans of nearly every stripe believe the recent McCutcheon ruling will make our political system more corrupt – again with broad consensus across Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.”

The Democracy Corps survey seems to contradict the Pew survey with its finding that “just 35 percent give the court a positive job performance rating and a strong majority believe that Justices are influenced more by their own personal beliefs and political leanings than by a strict legal analysis.” 

Another new study was prepared by several academics who reviewed free speech cases before the Supreme Court and this survey found – maybe this won’t surprise you – that more liberal judges tend to support the free speech claims of liberals and more conservative judges tend to support the claims of conservatives. “While liberal justices are over all more supportive of free speech claims than conservative justices,” the study found, “the votes of both liberal and conservative justices tend to reflect their preferences toward the ideological groupings of the speaker.”

As the New York Times reported, “The findings are a twist on the comment by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that the First Amendment protects ‘freedom for the thought that we hate.’ On the Supreme Court, the First Amendment appears to protect freedom for the thought of people we like.”

“Though the results are consistent with a long line of research in the social sciences, I still find them stunning — shocking, really,” said Professor Lee Epstein, one of the authors of the study.

Adam Liptak covers the Supreme Court for the Times and wrote over the weekend that the recent 5-4 campaign finance decision – the McCutheon decision – broke along increasingly predictable partisan lines with the five justices appointed by Republican presidents voting for the Republican National Committee, which was a plaintiff. The four justices appointed by Democratic presidents dissented.

“That 5-to-4 split along partisan lines was by contemporary standards unremarkable,” Liptak wrote. “But by historical standards it was extraordinary. For the first time, the Supreme Court is closely divided along party lines.”

Even in Roosevelt’s day the Court’s makeup featured conservative Democrats and moderate to liberal Republicans. No such thing today. Other analysis shows that in the U.S. Senate, for example, the most conservative Democrat is now more liberal than the most liberal Republican. The Court increasingly reflects this huge partisan divide in the country.

“The partisan polarization on the Court reflects similarly deep divisions in Congress, the electorate and the elite circles in which the justices move,” Liptak notes and, almost all of the time these days, even the young men and women chosen as law clerks to the justices have a partisan background. Even the speaking engagements justices accept almost always line-up with the justice’s partisan backgrounds before they went to the bench. John Roberts and Clarence Thomas, for the most part, speak only to conservative groups, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the most part, only to liberal groups. You have to wonder how this kind of polarization can be good for the justices, the Court or the country.

“The very question of partisan voting hardly arose until 1937,” Liptak writes, “as dissents on the Supreme Court were infrequent. When the justices did divide, it was seldom along party lines.” This was clearly true for the Supreme Court Franklin Roosevelt tried to change. Some of the decisions FDR most disliked were supported by the “liberals” on the Court, but I would argue that in the main they were acting as judges and not as partisans, which is what we should be able to expect.

Supreme Politics…

At least three things need to happen to turn around the steady partisan drift of the Supreme Court; a drift that will inevitably further erode public confidence in the Court. Of course if you believe the research the erosion of confidence is already happening.

First, presidents need to nominate judges based primarily on the quality of their scholarship and thoughtfulness and not, as is most often done now, almost entirely on the basis of a partisan background. You could argue that the last largely “non-partisan” appointment to the Court was Justice David Souter in 1990. Souter, of course, disappointed many conservatives for being too moderate. But, in many ways, he had the experience and resume of an ideal candidate for high judicial office. Souter came to the Court with two overriding qualifications – a reputation for sound judicial scholarship and a career marked by independence. Every appointment by presidents of both parties since Souter has been highly political in nature.

At the same time, the politicians in the Senate who “advise and consent” on these appointments need to take more seriously that role. The nomination of a Supreme Court justice has become one of the most partisan exercises in our democracy and all the parties, for the good of the country and the Court, should pull back from the partisan edge. It is a long way down if they step much farther in that direction.

Second, the justices themselves need to recognize that putting on judicial robes does not provide cover for blatant partisanship. The demands of public accountability insist on great effort not only to display non-partisanship, but to practice it as well.

Finally, judges need to accept the fact, as the Democracy Corps survey suggests, that the public has a weak appetite for an institution that has extremely limited requirements for disclosure of conflicts and continues to resists every attempt to open up its incredibly important proceedings to modern media coverage. The secretive nature of the Court’s deliberations is obviously necessary to preserve the process of judging, but it no longer makes sense to deny coverage of the arguments that precede the decision making. It’s past time for broadcast coverage of the Supreme Court.

You could argue that the great partisan politicization of the Supreme Court dates to the failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 and the successful nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991. The searing new documentary – Anita- Speaking Truth to Powerthat re-visits the circus that became the Thomas confirmation hearings, if seen by enough Americans, might actually serve as a catalyst for re-thinking the whole process of nominating and confirming justices. I’m going to guess that most Americans under 40 don’t have a memory of the testimony of law professor Anita Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. If they see this film they can’t help but pay closer attention to future appointments to the Court that shapes so much about our lives.

The new documentary makes the case powerfully that raw politics – Senate politics, as well as race and gender politics – prevailed when Thomas was confirmed in the face of considerable evidence that he had acted inappropriately – we’d call it sexual harassment today – toward a number of women who worked with him, ironically at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is also ironic now to remember that Thomas was approved by a Democratic Senate. The vote was 52-48.

Just for the record, among Northwest senators only Oregon Republican Bob Packwood, who would later have his own troubles with sexual harassment, voted “no” on the Thomas nomination.

The great cynic H.L. Mencken, who at one time or another disparaged most everything and everyone, reportedly said that judges “are law students who mark their own papers.” I think Mencken’s point was that judges, alone in our system, are largely unaccountable to anyone and therefore in need of a heightened degree of self control and reflection, as well as a passion for the non-partisanship.

Or, as the great English philosopher and jurist Francis Bacon wrote, “Judges ought to be more learned than witty, more reverend than plausible, and more advised than confident. Above all things, integrity is their portion and proper virtue.”

The Court may not be a “religion” as Sen. Wheeler said nearly 80 years ago, but it is the one branch of our complicated system that above all depends on public trust and confidence. Even a little erosion of that trust is a big problem.


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©2019 by Marc C Johnson