Politicking, gifts, rights reversals crater US public trust in Supreme Court
Largest blows to public trust have come from Democrats as top court remains stacked with conservative justices
By Darren Lyn
HOUSTON, United States (AA) – Public opinion of America’s highest court continues to plummet from once favorable highs due to controversial decisions that have rolled back long-standing rights, political maneuvering in Congress, and revelations that justices have received extravagant gifts from the ultra-wealthy.
Democratic lawmakers are asking for a federal investigation into Justice Clarence Thomas, by many estimates the Supreme Court’s most conservative justice, after it was revealed that him and his wife have been lavished with a lifestyle of paid vacations and luxurious gifts from billionaires for nearly two decades.
Revelations of Thomas’ life of luxury funded by wealthy benefactors come as recent polls found that public opinion of the nation’s highest court is at an all-time low.
A Pew Research Center survey released in July showed that a majority of Americans – 54% – have an unfavorable view of the Supreme Court, while fewer than half of the respondents – 44% – expressed a favorable opinion.
The decline in the court’s ratings over the past three years is drastic, a whopping 26% points from the 70% favorability measured in 2020.
The current survey marks the first time that the public’s view of the court was significantly more negative than positive in more than 35 years since Pew began its polling in 1987.
“That’s due to Democrats,” Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, told Anadolu.
“The principal driver is among Democrats when it comes to the unfavorable view of the Supreme Court in these polls. Republicans have a more favorable view of the court, which dates back to the George W. Bush administration, with the exception of a period where Republican support went down during the Barack Obama administration.”
- Vacations to houses
Thomas’ lavishly funded lifestyle was exposed by the investigative news website ProPublica. The perks he received from billionaire donors over his three decades on the Supreme Court are estimated to be worth millions of dollars.
ProPublica’s investigation found that Thomas and his wife, conservative political activist Virginia Thomas, received more than three dozen destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, eight helicopter rides, VIP passes to high-profile sporting events, two stays at luxury resorts, and a standing invitation to an exclusive golf club.
It was revealed that these gifts came from wealthy benefactors, including oil magnate Paul “Tony” Novelly, Berkshire Hathaway investment banker David Sokol and business tycoon H. Wayne Huizenga.
In April, ProPublica also exposed Thomas’ relationship with billionaire Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow, who footed the bill for several vacations, private jet flights and purchased Thomas’ mother’s house in Savannah, Georgia.
Thomas did not disclose most of these gifts and services, even though justices are supposed to disclose gifts valued over $415.
ProPublica said the only sporting event trip Thomas ever publicly disclosed was a paid flight and accommodations to the Daytona 500 NASCAR race in Florida in 1999.
“Ethics legislation for the Supreme Court and the judicial branch of government is about as lax as you can get when compared to the executive and legislative branches,” said Jones.
“Because of our constitutional structure and precedent, the Supreme Court manages its own affairs with the goal of having an autonomous branch. Therefore, you can’t have the other two branches setting up rules for the judicial branch, and the Supreme Court has apparently opted not to make its members comply with methods that the other two branches of government do.”
- ‘A Republican institution’
Half of Americans view the Supreme Court as being conservative, versus 40% who see it as “middle of the road.” Only 7% describe the court as being liberal.
Polls over the past three years show that the share of Americans saying the court is conservative has increased 20 points from 30% in 2020 to 50% in 2023.
“The Supreme Court is now seen as a Republican institution, versus a Democratic institution,” said Jones.
The nine-member Supreme Court currently consists of six conservative justices and three liberal judges, which reinforces how most Americans view the high court, according to the Pew poll.
The stacked ideological composition of the court is largely due to political manufacturing dating back to 2016, when then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked US President Barack Obama from nominating longtime jurist Merrick Garland after the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
At the time, McConnell declared any appointment by the sitting president would be null and void because the US was in an election year, and said the next justice should be chosen by the next president.
He did not hold the same precedent for former President Donald Trump, who went on to nominate one-third of all sitting Supreme Court justices, including Amy Coney Barrett who was confirmed by McConnell’s Republican-controlled Senate just a week before the November 2020 election.
“McConnell essentially ran out the clock on Garland being appointed to the Supreme Court” and set the stage for Trump to seize a “relatively unprecedented” foothold in the Supreme Court, said Jones.
“Trump made it a priority to appoint three young and very conservative justices in Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett,” he said.
“By doing so, he fortified a Republican-leaning Supreme Court by appointing justices who would be in their positions of power for a considerable period of time.”
- Authority at stake
The Pew poll found that 70% of Democrats view the Supreme Court as conservative, as opposed to just 32% of Republicans.
The survey also shows that Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats – 57% versus 24% – to say the court is “middle of the road.”
While 68% of Republicans had a favorable view of the court, the figure was at just 24% for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, down 7% since April and the lowest favorable rating for either party in more than three decades.
That marks a significant shift considering nearly two-thirds of Democrats had a favorable impression of the Supreme Court in 2021.
“Democrats now view the Supreme Court as the enemy,” said Jones.
“That’s because most decisions coming out of the court are inconsistent with their worldviews, everything from immigration to the Second Amendment right to bear arms to the Dobbs decision which overturned Roe v. Wade.”
He was referring to the landmark decision that ended half-a-century of federal abortion protections, a longtime goal of conservative Republicans.
“The Dobbs decision sealed it for Democrats and their outlook that the Supreme Court was Republican-run,” said Jones.
“The one hot-button issue of Roe v. Wade was extremely important for Democrats’ view through the lens on abortion rights. At that point, Democrats believed that the court went from a more neutral view to one that was Republican or more conservative.”
Despite the partisan divide, roughly half of Americans, 51%, said the Supreme Court has the right amount of power, versus 40% who said the court has too much power, while only 7% said the court has too little power.
However, Democrats are three times as likely as Republicans – 60% vs. 20% – to say that the court has too much power.
When it comes to a potential investigation of Thomas, Jones said he does not see anything coming out of it, except Democrats keeping it in the public eye by taking a conservative justice “to the woodshed” over an ethical issue.
“The principal error by Thomas is the impropriety. It looks bad seeing that he was given red-carpet and celebrity treatment by billionaire donors, but at this point, it doesn’t appear that he did anything illegal, just maybe an unethical or poor decision.”
The question remains if whatever gifts Thomas accepted undermined the Supreme Court as a neutral and fair arbiter, he said.
“If the Supreme Court becomes delegitimized in the eyes of the public, then its ability to rule as it sees fit could be limited,” said Jones.
“But with Trump being the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 despite his laundry list of indictments, Republicans won’t see Thomas in a bad light for accepting gifts.”
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