A Quinnipiac poll released last Friday found that a majority of Americans—61 percent—believe Supreme Court decision-making is “mainly” motivated by politics. This figure includes 67 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans, and represents a six-point increase since Quinnipiac last asked the question two years ago. Although justices across the ideological spectrum have been strenuously denying charges of partisanship of late, it seems the tiny slice of common ground between them and the public might be Justice Clarence Thomas’s description of the Court as “the most dangerous branch of government.”
In the months since Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation gave the Court’s conservatives a 6-3 supermajority, several justices have offered what sounded a lot like preemptive defenses of the Court in their occasional public appearances. Unfortunately, their choices of venue and phrasing have only exemplified how out of touch their perspective has become. Barrett, for example, unironically sought to convince a roomful of people that the Justices are not “a bunch of partisan hacks” at a University of Louisville center named after Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who introduced her at the event. McConnell, of course, famously spent the eight months before the 2016 election preventing President Barack Obama from appointing a successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, but rushed through Barrett’s confirmation six weeks before the 2020 election. Barrett describing the Court as above politics while palling around with Mitch McConnell is like Cinderella appearing on stage with the Fairy Godmother and proudly claiming to have fashioned the glass slippers herself.
Justice Samuel Alito joined in on the act in a late September speech at University of Notre Dame, Barrett’s alma mater. In it, he vehemently objected to growing concerns about the Court’s late-night use of its shadow docket to, among other things, nullify the right to abortion in Texas, calling it “the silliest, most annoying criticism.” Thomas, also in September and also at Notre Dame, insisted that the justices do not rule based on their “personal preferences,” and vowed to continue defending the Court’s legitimacy even as he analogized it to “a car with three wheels”—not exactly a metaphor that inspires confidence.
This trend is not limited to the conservatives: Even the somehow-not-yet-retired Justice Stephen Breyer has asked the public not to lose faith in the Court, reasoning that the institution has served the U.S. “pretty well.” Such an assertion is a slap in the face to anyone who has tried to access abortion care in Texas over the past three months as the Supreme Court deliberates the future of the right to reproductive autonomy.
The results of the Quinnipiac poll, along with other recent Supreme Court approval rating surveys that evince waning public trust in the institution, are strong evidence that this scattershot public relations tour is not having its intended effect. Given the cases related to abortion access, gun rights, and religious freedom the Court will decide this term, there is little reason to expect public sentiment to change anytime soon. As long as the justices continue to act as partisans while insisting they are not, the number of people who take them seriously will continue to dwindle.