A year after striking down the constitutional right to abortion, the conservative wing of the United States Supreme Court has continued to leave a dramatic imprint on American society, while facing increasing scrutiny from questions of legitimacy and ethics.
As has become customary, the court saved its blockbuster rulings for the final days of its judicial term, which usually ends at the end of June. The court on Thursday ruled that race-sensitive college admissions programs — a cornerstone of efforts to diversify higher education — violate the constitution.
The next day, he canceled President Joe Biden’s $400 billion student debt relief package, then sided with a Catholic website designer who argued she shouldn’t being forced to serve same-sex couples, a move that dissident liberals say would pave the way for more anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination.
Rulings in the three cases have been split along ideological lines, with the six conservative justices lining up against his liberal wing, in the latest demonstration of how the court’s right-wing majority has solidified its decision-making power since coming into power. function of Amy Coney Barrett in October. 2020, giving them a 6-3 advantage.
“Whenever there is a noticeable shift in the balance of power within the court, it tends to be followed by several years of more controversial rulings,” said Stanford Law School professor Michael McConnell.
The Supreme Court has often been a polarizing institution, with a handful of life appointees handing down back-to-back rulings on controversial issues. But as the court’s conservative majority has grown bolder, it has drawn more criticism, raising questions about whether changes are needed to stop its influence.
“I think some members of the court are starting to realize that their legitimacy is being questioned in a way that hasn’t been questioned in the past,” Biden told MSNBC on Thursday, suggesting that even the chief justice John Roberts shared the concern. Some Democrats have urged the president to “pack the court” by adding new leftist justices to counter the power of conservatives.
Last year’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, which had enshrined the constitutional right to abortion for nearly 50 years, hastened the pushback against the High Court as a majority of Americans are not agreement with the decision. Polls at the end of the last term showed trust in the court had dropped to record lows.
Trust continued to wane after a pair of ethics scandals embroiled in two of the court’s staunchest conservatives, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. ProPublica reported earlier this year that Thomas received lavish gifts and hospitality from Harlan Crow, a Republican political donor. A few weeks later, he reported that Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire involved in several court cases, had paid for Alito to fly by private jet to Alaska for a fishing trip.
According to a Marquette Law School poll in May, 59% of Americans disapproved of the work of the Supreme Court, after the Thomas report was released. This was 6 percentage points higher than in January.
Both judges denied doing anything improper and said they had made all the disclosures they thought were necessary.
Still, the controversies have sparked anger, which was evident at a protest in Washington last month on the anniversary of the Roe reversal. A protester supporting abortion rights held a sign with drawings of Thomas and Alito that read, “It’s called the high court because you can buy judges at 30,000 feet.”
Nadine Seiler, a 58-year-old protester, held a sign reading “Scotus is illegitimate”. The court had “no ethics”, she said. “Unless Roberts stands up and has some sort of ethics for the court, the court is illegitimate.”
Judges file financial disclosure reports annually. But some legal experts argue that the ethics rules and how they apply to the Supreme Court should be clarified.
“Liberals think what Thomas and Alito did is heinous. Conservatives think the criticism is spearheaded and politically motivated, and if you look closely at the facts and the rules that were in place, there was nothing wrong,” said Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen. “It’s really in the eye of the beholder.”
The scandals piled pressure on Roberts, who has often spoken about the need to preserve the Supreme Court’s institutional integrity.
Following reports about Thomas, Roberts said the court is considering steps to ensure he “uphold the highest standards” of ethical behavior while maintaining its “status as an independent branch of government,” without giving further details, according to CBS.
Nonetheless, he declined a request from the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about Supreme Court ethics, stating in a letter that such testimony is “extremely rare.” . . in light of separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence”.
Adam Mortara, a conservative activist and lawyer, argued that questions about the court’s legitimacy stem from dissatisfaction with its legal opinions, pointing out that liberal justices have also faced questions about their disclosures. “It’s not really a neutral review,” he said.
Despite the court’s increasingly polarized perception, some important decisions this term were made by majorities made up of a mix of liberal and conservative justices. Some legal experts were surprised when the court protected the right to vote in two cases in which it sided with lower courts in North Carolina and Alabama that upheld challenges to Republican-drawn electoral maps . Both majority decisions were written by Roberts.
Neil Siegel, a professor at Duke University School of Law, said that until Thursday, “I would have described the term as ideologically quite mixed, less predictable than last term.” But the trio of rulings on student debt, college admissions and the website designer made the court “predictably very aggressive, very conservative”.
The court has now adjourned for the summer and in the next term it is likely to continue to engage in controversy. He has previously agreed to hear cases on whether people subject to domestic violence court orders can own guns and whether internal judges at the Securities and Exchange Commission are legitimate, among others.
The increasingly widespread view of a polarized Supreme Court reflects the growing political divisions in American society. “Polarization affects public suspicion, skepticism, criticism from judges,” Gersen said.
In light of this polarization, “clear and clearly binding rules will give everyone more peace of mind and certainty about what is allowed and what is not allowed,” she added.