Jamelle Bouie: Supreme Court seems awfully nervous about its legitimacy

(Jose Luis Magana | AP) The U.S. Supreme Court is seen early Tuesday, May 3, 2022 in Washington.

One of the cardinal rules of power, as Christopher Wallace once said in the fourth of his “Ten Crack Commandments,” is to never get high on your own supply. Put differently, it is important for people in positions of influence to stay aware of the limits of their perception and ability. To buy your own hype or indulge your own propaganda — to treat your image as reality and close yourself to criticism and critique — is to court disaster.

It is especially important to remember this rule when your power rests on something other than brute force. If you depend on customs and norms to exercise your will, if other people have to believe that you are a powerful actor in order for you to be a powerful actor, then you have to be mindful of the reality of your position. You should — you must — do everything you can to shepherd and preserve your legitimacy in the eyes of those who effectively grant the power you wield.

My use of the word “legitimacy” is an obvious giveaway that I’m talking, here, about the Supreme Court. In recent months, several justices have spoken out on the question of the court’s power and legitimacy, which are inextricably tied up with each other. In the wake of the leak of what would become, with just a few tweaks, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, Justice Clarence Thomas (a George H.W. Bush appointee), warned that such leaks, as well as protests against the justices, would fatally weaken the Court as an institution.

“What happened at the court was tremendously bad,” Thomas said in May. “I wonder how long we’re going to have these institutions at the rate we’re undermining them. And then I wonder when they’re gone or destabilized, what we’re going to have as a country.”

More recently, the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts (a George W. Bush appointee), defended the court against attacks on its legitimacy from Vice President Kamala Harris and other critics of its far-reaching decisions in Dobbs, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen and other cases.

“Simply because people disagree with opinions, is not a basis for questioning the legitimacy of the court,” he told an audience of judges attending a conference in Colorado Springs. Roberts added that “if the court doesn’t retain its legitimate function of interpreting the constitution, I’m not sure who would take up that mantle. 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.”

In a talk last month, Justice Elena Kagan (a Barack Obama appointee) rejected this view, responding to Roberts even if she did not name him directly. Kagan said that the conservative majority had damaged the court’s credibility with the public in decisions that seemed to track the political and ideological interests of the Republican Party more than any coherent interpretation of the Constitution.

“The very worst moments have been times when judges have even essentially reflected one party’s or one ideology’s set of views in their legal decisions,” Kagan said. “The thing that builds up reservoirs of public confidence is the court acting like a court and not acting like an extension of the political process.”

“If, over time, the court loses all connection with the public and with public sentiment,” Kagan added, “that is a dangerous thing for democracy.”

Kagan’s colleague, Justice Samuel Alito (also appointed by George W. Bush), had this to say in a comment to The Wall Street Journal: “It goes without saying that everyone is free to express disagreement with our decisions and to criticize our reasoning as they see fit. But saying or implying that the court is becoming an illegitimate institution or questioning our integrity crosses an important line.”

Or, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett said last year while speaking to an audience at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, “this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.”

That the justices are discussing the legitimacy of the Supreme Court in the open is reason enough for us to discuss the legitimacy of the Supreme Court as well. And what’s striking about the comment from Thomas in particular is how it roots the challenge to the court’s legitimacy in the inside baseball surrounding the leak rather than public discontent with its decisions that Kagan spoke about. In a similar disconnect, Roberts and Alito both take for granted the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and its decisions, as if its power were inherent to the institution — part of the natural order of things rather than something that’s been mediated by politics throughout the court’s history. Roberts even asserts the exclusive right of the court to say what the law is, as if the institution exists above and beyond the constitutional system, accountable to no one but itself.

Only Kagan seems to have any awareness that the court’s stature is a precious resource that can be lost if the institution runs too far away from the public, or if the court begins to treat the public and its representatives as mere subjects — bound to obey its judgments — rather than partners in the construction of constitutional meaning.

The truth, as Kagan said, is that the conservative majority has gone far past where the public is and that the public is increasingly skeptical of the court’s power and influence. Forty-seven percent of Americans say that they trust the judicial branch of the federal government, an all-time low according to a recent Gallup poll, and a whopping 58% of Americans disapprove of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job. Thirty-eight percent say that the ideological leaning of the court is “about right,” but 42% of Americans say the court is too conservative.

If the conservative justices weren’t so convinced of their own righteousness — if they weren’t so high on their own supply — they might be able to see that they’re playing a dangerous game. The court’s power, including the influence of each individual justice, depends on the consent of the public and its representatives. And while there is not, at this moment, a broad-based movement to bring oversight and accountability to the Supreme Court, it’s also not beyond the realm of possibility.

The Dobbs ruling was so unpopular that it pushed a majority of Americans to support court expansion, according to a Marquette University Law School poll. Two-thirds of Americans also want to impose term limits on justices, according to The Associated Press. One can only imagine how these numbers will look as the conservative majority continues to write Republican Party ideology into the Constitution using “originalism” or “textualism” or whatever other method the justices choose to reverse engineer their conclusions, as they are poised to do in this new term with cases on gerrymandering, voting rights, the environment and the rights of sexual minorities.

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court is more than ready to abuse its power and authority. The question is whether the American public is willing, through its representatives in Congress, to discipline the court — to remind it of the actual scope of its power and relegate it to a less central place in our constitutional order.

Jamelle Bouie | The New York Times