The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 18, 2013

Our View: Supreme Court falls in public esteem

The Free Press

— Americans’ cynicism extends to virtually every institution these days. But surely, we still respect the United States Supreme Court. Right?

Maybe not. A March poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that the Supreme Court’s favorability rating hovers near an all-time low. A national survey found that only 52 percent of Americans view the court favorably, compared to 31 percent who view it unfavorably. The numbers have changed only slightly since the court’s last major ruling in July, which upheld most of the Affordable Care Act.

Granted, The Supreme Court’s popularity still rests miles above Congress, but for an institution that calls itself America’s foremost arbiter of justice, there seems to be more going on than meets the eye. More than ever, it seems, the court finds itself excoriated over charges of political bias.

Remember the 2000 Bush/Gore decision that decided the presidential race in favor of the Republican? The court enjoyed a 70 percent favorability rating around that time. Afterward, the left charged that the court slanted right, and the favorability rating fell. Since then, there have been occasions for conservatives to charge that the court slants left (as in Chief Justice John Roberts’ acceptance of the Affordable Care Act, an occasion when many conservatives complained of being “stabbed in the back.”)

We may as well prepare ourselves for more of the same kind of partisan rhetoric on both sides. The court is wading into the culture wars nowadays, and recent deliberations on same-sex marriage has brought out many knives. Justice Antonin Scalia’s philosophical questions on that case have inspired the left to make a right-wing caricature out of him.

We’re living at a time, it seems, when no politically-minded American is willing to trust the court’s fairness on anything. If a decision goes against the right, the right charges bias. Likewise, when it goes the other way, the left charges bias.

Scalia himself recently complained that the public errs when it charges political bias of any kind in the decisions the court renders. If we were to take Scalia at his word, we would agree that the Supreme Court is made up of a variety of personal ideologies, and the justices interpret the Constitution in different ways, but at the end of the day, their personal views are set aside.

That, of course, is how we’d like it to be. But we’ve become a country of cynics.

It may well be that the court is no more political than it has ever been. What is surely true, however, is that persons and groups outside the court have more actively charged political motives to it since that famous (or infamous, if you prefer) Bush/Gore decision.

But it may also well be that we Americans are too quick to ascribe bias when rulings conflict with our own politics. Before we throw the Supreme Court under the bus, we might do better to listen to the arguments, set aside our own bias, and judge for ourselves where the law splits the difference.