Chief Justice Roberts must face, and fix, public mistrust of Supreme Court

Rather than ask why many Americans now hold a dim view of the Supreme Court, Roberts has closed his ears and downplayed the public’s very valid concerns.

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U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts doesn’t get the public’s distrust of the Court — but he needs to fix it, the Editorial Board writes.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts understands much of the public is losing — or has already lost — trust in the nation’s highest court.

But rather than look inward and try to understand why so many Americans now hold such a dim view of the Supreme Court, Roberts has instead decided to close his ears to the criticism and downplay the public’s very valid concerns.

The distrust won’t just disappear. Indeed, it’s likely to grow now that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has introduced legislation to institute a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks — a proposal clearly set in motion when the court threw reproductive rights out the window in June by overturning Roe v. Wade.

“The court has always decided controversial cases and decisions always have been subject to intense criticism and that is entirely appropriate,” Roberts told a group of judges and lawyers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last Friday.

Editorial

Editorial

He said the Supreme Court’s role is to decide law, but added “that role doesn’t change simply because people disagree with this opinion or that opinion or with a particular mode of jurisprudence.”

Roberts makes it all sound like a normal ideological spat between the court and its ever-present critics, when in reality it’s far more serious.

How did we get here?

Roberts’ remarks to the judicial conference, hosted by Denver’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, marked his first public appearance since the court overturned Roe.

“If the court doesn’t retain its legitimate function of interpreting the Constitution, I’m not sure who would take up that mantle,” he said in response to questions asked by two attorneys who interviewed Roberts as part of a self-described fireside chat.

“You don’t want the political branches telling you what the law is, and you don’t want public opinion to be the guide about what the appropriate decision is,” Roberts said.

But if that’s the case, what put us on this path? Where to begin…

Could it be the court’s alarming turn far to the right, orchestrated by politics and starting back in 2016 when Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused for months to hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Court by President Barack Obama?

Then there was the addition of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, two relatively inexperienced jurists picked by the disgraced Trump administration?

Then there was the May leak of a draft opinion from the court, pointing a month in advance to the justices’ plans to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Whether a leak or a trial balloon, the unprecedented disclosure gave rise to concerns that hinky things are happening behind the scenes of the Court.

It’s also disconcerting that the Court’s conservative majority is willing to upend the notion of issuing rulings based on “settled law,” as it did with Roe — possibly setting the stage for the justices to re-examine and peel back previous decisions that reinforced rights and established legal protections for millions of Americans.

And it certainly doesn’t foster public trust when the news emerges that Virginia Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, emailed Republican legislators in Wisconsin and Arizona imploring them to overturn Donald Trump’s losses in those states in the November 2020 presidential election.

Joe Biden legitimately won both states, but Virginia Thomas said in emails to GOP state officials, “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

All that was missing from the message was “wink-wink.” And the public knows it.

Time for some positive action

A national survey this month by the Pew Research Center says only 48% of U.S. adults favorably view the Supreme Court, down from 70% in August 2020.

What’s galling about Roberts’ comments is the shocking, if not willful, disregard of the public’s current, clear mistrust. We also sense a lack of desire — or maybe even ability — on his part to fix the problem.

All of which is especially troubling given the fraught times in which we now live.

The 1950s and 1960s were tumultuous, but the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren reshaped elements of American public life for the better.

Among its many landmark decisions, the Warren Court overturned legal segregation in public schools with Brown v. Board of Education and ended legal barriers to interracial marriage with Loving v. Virginia.

The concept of being “mirandized” became a part of the American lexicon with Miranda v. Arizona, requiring that criminal suspects be informed of their right to remain silent and to have an attorney.

John Roberts is no Earl Warren. He reinforces the notion by railing against public mistrust instead of figuring out how he and fellow justices can rebuild it.

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