Editorial: Blame politics for plunge in High Court confidence

The Supreme Court is a venerable institution tasked with ensuring equal justice under the law and interpreting the Constitution as its guardian.

Its ratings are in the cellar.

The American people’s confidence in the Supreme Court is at its lowest level ever recorded, according to a Gallup poll released Thursday.

The poll found that only 25% of Americans have confidence in the court, dropping 11 points from its mark of 36% recorded last year. The most recent figure is 5 percentage points lower than the previous lowest point, which was recorded in June 2014.

That confidence shifts along party lines comes as no surprise in these polarized times. According to Gallup, public confidence dropped most significantly in the past year among Democrats and independents. Confidence dropped by 17 points to 13% among Democrats and by 15 points to 25% among independents. The percentage of Republicans who expressed confidence rose two points to 39%.

The left has taken potshots at High Court decisions in recent years, from the 2018 ruling in favor of the Masterpiece Cakeshop over the right to refuse to provide services, such as making a wedding cake for a gay couple, based on the owner’s religious beliefs, to the Court declining last year to block a Texas law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

It’s also safe to say that the nationwide protests over the impending reversal of Roe v.  Wade, hinted at by a leaked draft decision this spring, indicates at the very least a lack of confidence in the court.

But it’s not just Supreme Court decisions that have influenced public confidence to such a degree — it’s the often brutal confirmation process that in recent years has devolved into an exercise in partisan warfare.

From the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings highlighted by Anita Hill’s opposition testimony, a process Thomas has referred to as a “high-tech lynching,” to the contentious 2018 confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, much of which focused on allegations of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, the Senate procedure to confirm a Supreme Court justice smacks of political theater at its worst.

And sometimes partisan politics act as gatekeeper to even getting a confirmation hearing, as when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell played keepaway with the nomination of Merrick Garland by Barack Obama in 2016.

By the time Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s name was put up by Donald Trump in 2020, the confirmation process was practically interactive, with opponents on the left deriding her religion and likening the Christian group to which she belonged to “The Handsmaid’s Tale.”

The notion that this atmosphere and the you-attacked-our-guy, we’ll-rip-yours playbook would erode the image of the Supreme Court and undermine confidence in the institution mattered little.

In the weeks following the draft decision leak, protesters have demonstrated outside of justices’ homes, the “Handmaid’s Tale” iconography has been resurrected and mainstream media bolsters the outrage.

The Constitutional basis for Roe v. Wade and whether it was a matter for the High Court gets short shrift.

Gallup’s poll analysis found it unclear if the court overturning Roe could harm its reputation further or improve it based on those who agree with the decision.

Confidence in the Supreme Court should have nothing to do with the popularity of its decision, or which side of the aisle embraces a ruling. But that is the prevailing attitude, and we’re poorer for it.