The best way for the U.S. Supreme Court to preserve its legitimacy is to ignore public opinion.
Chief Justice John Roberts recently made remarks defending the institution of the Supreme Court. It was his first public address since the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade.
“Simply because people disagree with an opinion is not a basis for criticizing the legitimacy of the court,” he said at an event in Colorado. He added, “You don’t want the political branches telling you what the law is. And you don’t want public opinion to be the guide of what the appropriate decision is.”
Criticism of court rulings is fair game. As Roberts himself pointed out, some of the fiercest critiques of the court’s decisions come from its own members. But those attacks should focus on the process each justice used to reach his or her decision, not one’s feelings about the result.
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But it’s the outcome, not the process, that generated so much criticism after the Dobbs ruling.
Vice President Kamala Harris said the decision “causes me great concern about the integrity of the court overall.” A recent piece in Vanity Fair attacked the court for being “dominated by unaccountable right-wing activists.” If that was the case, one wonders why the majority didn’t outlaw abortion, instead of returning the issue to the states.
Notably, access to abortion in Nevada hasn’t changed. That’s unlikely to change either. Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo has shown no enthusiasm for modifying Nevada’s abortion law.
If you take a step back, you can see the game that’s being played. Leading voices on the political left attack court decisions they disagree with as illegitimate. Anyone supporting those decisions is supposedly doing grave harm to the institution itself. Ergo, preserving the court’s legitimacy requires decisions agreeable to the political left.
But it’s Congress that passes the laws. If the public doesn’t approve of those laws, they can vote for new elected officials.
In contrast, federal judges receive lifetime tenure, specifically to shield them from public pressure. Their job is to abide by the U.S. Constitution and laws passed by Congress, not impose their personal opinions. That’s the “rule of law.”
This won’t always be popular in the short term. Less than half of Americans can name the three branches of government. The nuances of the separation of powers are sadly lost on many.
But public opinion is always changing. The court and Roberts’ tenure as chief justice won’t be defined by one decision. He’s right to defend the court for fulfilling its unique role in American government.