American schoolchildren are taught that the United States is a representative democracy, in which citizens vote for their leaders who make laws. The federal government’s executive branch’s leader, the president, and members of Congress (the legislative branch) are elected more or less directly by the people. Congress proceedings are broadcast via CSPAN and the president, being a popular figure, is followed widely by the media.
In contrast, the Supreme Court, the head of the judicial branch in the United States, remains a shadowy institution. Few Americans can correctly identify the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Americans may know that the Supreme Court is meant to analyze the Constitution and any disputes in laws, but whether they truly understand the purpose of the Supreme Court is another matter altogether.
Ratings of the Supreme Court are at a record low, with forty-eight percent of Americans regarding the Court favorably, and thirty-eight percent regarding the court unfavorably. With twenty-six percent of polled individuals regarding the court as overly liberal and twenty-three percent of polled individuals regarding the court as overly conservative, the court obviously faces a problem when it comes to the public’s opinion of them.
The Supreme Court was meant to be insulated from popular opinion—the president nominates the justices, and the nominees are confirmed by Congress, technically a process that has no involvement from the citizenry. The justices have lifetime tenure and never have to worry about political obligations. The very immunity to the political tides, which should allow them to pursue justice more easily, causes Americans to be suspicious of the Supreme Court.
The reason for this suspicion is recent rulings–Citizens United, the Affordable Care Act, the Voting Rights Act, Prop 8 (or rather, its dismissal). All of these issues were highly controversial and divisive, and the judges often ruled in what seems to be a partisan manner, with the so-called liberal justices and the so-called conservative justices voting in two separate blocs. Justice Kennedy often is considered the swing vote and is closely watched by the media.
What is not known by many people is the other cases that the Supreme Court takes on, where often the justices voted unanimously, or vote in unlikely alliances (such as Justice Sotomayor and Justice Scalia voting in agreement). The court does not vote every time on partisan lines.
But even if they did, it does not make them an institution to instantly doubt. After all, they were picked by presidents who were hoping to cement their presidential legacy by having a justice with similar beliefs on the court, who would continue to influence law after the president leaves office. Moreover, Congress, as a bipartisan body, would also have to approve of this justice, and they would hope for at least a well-qualified justice, if not one who would agree with their political beliefs. Ideally, a justice may have some set political beliefs but would also back up their political beliefs with a steady, well-reasoned philosophy—this philosophy would allow the justices to be convinced by the facts of a case, lawyers defending one or the other, and amicus curiae briefs if they present convincing arguments. But asking the judges to not vote along partisan lines at all is practically impossible—partisanship is part of them being human.
Why does this even matter? This growing skepticism towards the Supreme Court undermines its authority as an institution. When the Affordable Care Act ruling came down, Tea Party conservatives rallied against it, saying that the ruling did not mean that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional, despite the Supreme Court technically being the final authority on the Constitution. This popular mentality is fueling Tea Party politicians’ fervor in Congress against the Affordable Care Act, thus undermining the Supreme Court and also causing a stalemate in Congress.
Americans, among other things, have a pitiful understanding of their own government and grow angry over an institution that they do not fully understand. But honestly, what can be done unless Americans seek out the knowledge for themselves?