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Supreme Court leak shakes trust in one more American pillar

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By CALVIN WOODWARD and HANNAH FINGERHUT
Supreme Court Abortion
Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thursday, May 5, 2022, in Washington. A draft opinion suggests the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide, according to a Politico report released Monday. Whatever the outcome, the Politico report represents an extremely rare breach of the court's secretive deliberation process, and on a case of surpassing importance. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Is there a new American motto: In nothing we trust?

By lots of measures, most in the U.S. lack much confidence in large institutions and have for years. Congress? Two big thumbs down. The presidency? Ehh. Americans are also distrustful of big business, unions, public schools and organized religion. Indeed, they hold abysmal views of the functioning of democracy itself.

The Supreme Court has been something of an exception. The one branch of government not dependent on public opinion has traditionally enjoyed higher public esteem than the branches elected by the people. Its above-the-fray reputation, cultivated with exquisite care, once served it well.

Now the justices face a reckoning over the audacious leak of an early draft opinion that strikes down the constitutional right to abortion, an episode that has deepened suspicions that the high court, for all its decorum, is populated by politicians in robes.

Republican members of Congress are suggesting a sinister left-wing plot to derail the outcome of the final decision. Liberals are alleging machinations from the right to lock the justices into their preliminary vote. For all that speculation, neither side knows who leaked the draft to Politico and why.

What's clear is that the affair has popped a deferential bubble around the court.

“My confidence in the court has been rocked,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the few Republican senators in favor of abortion rights, said with alarm. Vice President Kamala Harris accused the justices of mounting a “direct assault on freedom” if they vote as they signaled. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., accused Trump-nominated justices of lying to Congress about their abortion views in their hearings.

Elected officials do not normally talk this way about the justices. But now, it seems, the jurists are fair game, just another contingent of power players in the Washington viper pit.

In contrast, after mounting a fierce legal fight to settle the implausibly close 2000 election, Democrat Al Gore held back his grievances about political taint on the court when it crushed his hopes in a decision that made Republican George W. Bush the president.

Gore didn't hesitate to “accept the finality of this outcome,” as much as he said he disagreed with it. The deferential bubble was evident. But that decision became seen as the modern starting point in the erosion of trust in the court.

In the years since, Democrats gutted the filibuster on one front to help them populate the lower federal courts with as many judges as possible, knowing they were setting a precedent that could bite them in the future.

Then Republicans did the same for Supreme Court nominees in the judicial equivalent of nuclear escalation.

And there was Donald Trump. During his presidency, Trump specialized in what's known by the political class as saying the quiet part out loud. This included his sizing up the judiciary as a political beast, made up of Democratic judges or Republican ones.

For the justices, who have long cloaked themselves in the notion that the politics ends once they ascend to the bench, it was a step too far when Trump accused “Obama judges” of standing in his way and otherwise disparaged judges he didn't like.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges," Chief Justice John Roberts said in an unusual statement rebuking Trump's comments. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

Yet people in the United States, in recent times, have grown suspicious about judicial independence, with a strong majority believing justices should keep their political views out of their decisions but not even 1 in 5 polled believing they do an excellent or good job of that.

In 2020, Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett became the first justice in modern times to win confirmation without a single vote from the minority party. She's aware of how that looks.

“My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks,” she told an audience in Louisville, Kentucky, in September at a center named for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who had engineered her fast confirmation. Barrett was one of five justices signaling a vote against Roe v. Wade in the leaked draft, Politico said.

As controversial as the Roe v. Wade decision affirming abortion rights was in 1973 and in the years since, it was not a ruling driven by partisanship. The vote was 7-2, with five of the justices in the majority nominated by Republican presidents.

Now, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal on the conservative-majority court, warns that a reversal in 50 years of abortion rights would shatter the idea that American justice is blind to partisanship or party.

“Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?” she asked in a Mississippi abortion case in December. She said she thought it wouldn't survive that.

OUT OF SIGHT

Except when a monumental decision like this abortion one comes out, or when Congress is screening court nominees in its performative hearings, the Supreme Court works largely out of sight and out of mind. But in New York City, the leak got Sequoia Snyder thinking about the court. Is it just one more institution not to be trusted?

“When you think about it, the power is not in the hands of the people,” said Snyder, 22. "We don’t vote on that. The Electoral College ... the popular vote is ignored. The police are not very regulated, kind of can do what they want with impunity.

"Like every every facet of our society you go to, we don’t really have the power or a voice. So I just think it’s crazy that nine people have the final say on like everything in the country and they can never lose their job. It just seems weird.”

In Charleston, outside West Virginia’s only abortion clinic, Dennis Westover, a 72-year-old retired electrical engineer, sat in a lawn chair with an anti-abortion sign. He, too, sees weird doings from the court.

“One side or the other did it for a political motive to stir up some kind of stink," he said of the leak. “We human beings do what we do for whatever we think is a good reason. ... What was the reason? It couldn’t be a good one because you leaked Supreme Court privileged information.”

TRUST DEFICIT

In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, only 18% of U.S. adults said they have a “great deal” of confidence in the Supreme Court. About 27% have hardly any confidence in it.

The high court has historically received better ratings than the other branches and that remains so. In the most recent poll, just 4% have a great deal of confidence in Congress; 51% have hardly any. And 36% have hardly any confidence in the executive branch.

Still, the court's standing has been deteriorating in recent years. The 2021 General Social Survey suggested confidence in the high court was among its lowest points in the last half century.

In September, a Gallup poll found 54% said those surveyed had at least a “fair amount” of confidence in the court, down from 67% in 2020. Only one other time in five decades has that confidence fallen below 60%.

The poor ratings of government couple with grim views of U.S. democracy and a disenchantment with the pillars of society almost everywhere you look.

Gallup has tracked public opinion of 14 core institutions across the spectrum — organized labor, the church, the media, the medical community among them — and found confidence in them sagging, with the share expressing high confidence never rising above 36% on average over 15 years. Only the military and small businesses get a resounding vote of confidence.

Overlaying everything is a sense that the very foundation of the republic is in trouble. In January, 53% said in an AP-NORC poll that democracy in the U.S. is not working well; only 8% thought it was working very or extremely well.

That state of affairs emanated from a 2020 election that saw Trump fight fiercely and futilely to reverse Democrat Joe Biden's clear White House victory. Trump's false allegations of a rigged election have resounded across the country as the two parties square off over state election laws in response.

In his effort to cling to power, though, Trump also confronted the limits of political influence in the judiciary as he and his campaign brought a battery of far-fetched legal challenges to courtrooms only to have them systematically fail.

“Trump judges" didn't save him.

Associated Press writer Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.


10 Comments
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Americans are also distrustful of big business, unions, public schools and organized religion. Indeed, they hold abysmal views of the functioning of democracy itself.

All with very good reason.

"Officialdom" is not something deserving of respect in and of itself. Better the public and themselves regard them as "public servants" and act accordingly. This is what has been lost.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Fact is that there is a constitutional right of a baby to life. A constitutional right to abortion is a leftist pipe dream which does not exist.

-2 ( +5 / -7 )

Probably because, at least when it comes to the government, there isn't much to trust in the United States. You can only blatantly lie to your population so many times before they wise up. Apparently, you can lie a LOT before they reach that point though.

If anything, I would say the trust is way too high still. People still are likely to believe whatever US-media tells them, especially when it comes to foreign affairs. The American meritocracy seems to finally be failing. I look forward to the inevitable revolution, though it may not be in my lifetime as of yet.

Fact is that there is a constitutional right of a baby to life.

Where in the American Constitution is that explicitly outlined? I will admit I haven't read it for a while, but pretty sure that wasn't in there.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Democracy is supposed to be about the will of the majority being paramount, while the rights of the minority are protected as well. The framers of the Constitution, in their concern that slave holding states would not join the new nation, gave those states an outsized role in the government. What we see today in America is the remnant of that concern for slave states, in that the will of the minority is able to impose itself on the majority.

It is a basic failing of the American system that the will of the minority are able to impose themselves on the rights of the majority.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

If the US is a democracy then justices appointed by elected officials ought to be able to make legal decisions without aggressive protests in front of their homes.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

The polticization of the Supreme Court has been going on for decades, and is sad. However, the latest escapade is one of the worst breaches of confidentiality in recent memory. The person who stole this draft was no whistle-blower. There was no cover-up happening, no information being illegitimately witheld from the public. The Court was operating as it was designed to operate. The leaker needs to be named and shamed. Not criminally, but they do need to be disbarred and banished from any position of power or confidentiality.

And now the Justices are under siege in their own homes, their children being terrorized by mobs of political maniacs- an act forbidden by criminal law. And the Biden administration refused to even offer a soft condemnation of either act until put under severe pressure by the public.

As to the issue of abortion there are good people on both sides who can debate the matter. And it looks like they may have to if this draft becomes the will of the Court. Nothing has changed yet, so no need for the hysterics and melodrama that we are seeing on a daily basis. Everyone needs to calm down and let the judicial process do its thing.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

The fact is, the Democrats had about 50 years to do something to prevent this from happening. But I guess having something to 'fight for' gives them a reason to ask for people to vote for them. Republicans and Democrats are just as bad as each other.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It is a basic failing of the American system that the will of the minority are able to impose themselves on the rights of the majority.

Well, no that is not entirely true, the makeup of the Supreme Court is NOW predominantly conservative and the issue of Roe v. Wade was a horrible ruling that basically took the rights away from the people, which is something that the founding fathers didn't want. The Supreme Court was supposed to actually never be in the way or an arbiter for social-political issues like this. This is and should have always been a state issue. The country is pretty much split close to the middle 49% support and 47% oppose and 32% undecided. The issue will always be a decisive one and neither side will be happy with the outcome of their ruling once it comes out, but that doesn't give the right for the mob to form and try and bully these Justices into changing their minds, let's be clear about this. This is not a peaceful protest, this is a show of intimidation and it will have the opposite effect on the ruling if anything, this outburst may only strengthen their resolve. The left drone on that trying to overturn an election is unconstitutional and against democracy, because the people have spoken, the Supreme Court is about to reverse a very wrong decision and will revert back to how the law should have been decided and that is by the people.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If the US is a democracy then justices appointed by elected officials ought to be able to make legal decisions without aggressive protests in front of their homes.

Yeah, right. If the rules were reversed and it was liberal justices and an army of conservatives would protest in front of their homes the media coverage would be very different, in fact, they might even call every available law enforcement official and would designate those people as radical right-wing terrorists and saying or thinking they wouldn't be just not dealing with reality. No sane person would want anyone protesting outside of their homes. it is wrong it is the very definition of fascism at its worst.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Moving contentious issues to state control may be beneficial for the US. The federal government hardly functions as disagreements prevent deals being done. Consider instead a nation of Republican states with Republican laws and Democrat states with Democrat laws. Republicans could live in states that banned abortion, banned gay marriage - gay relationships even, banned the teaching of evolution and allowed anyone to carry a gun. Democrat states could ban private gun ownership and retain the right to abortion. Happy Republicans in Republican states, happy Democrats in Democrat states. A population that voted with its feet and settled where it was happy with the laws that governed it. It might take the rancour out of US politics, which is turning into civil war level hatred. Foreign policy could remain under federal control. Americans may not see it as ideal, but it may be the least worse way forward, as without any centrist politics, the nation is dividing into two by default anyway.

Not having any faith in institutions may encourage Americans to be more self-sufficient. This will help as climate change worsens.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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