Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Chief Justice John Roberts says he’s worried that the Supreme Court is losing “legitimacy” in the eyes of those disagree with its decisions. Addressing a judicial conference Friday in Colorado, Roberts acknowledged, “The court has always decided controversial cases and decisions always have been subject to intense criticism and that is entirely appropriate.”
But Roberts, whom President George W. Bush nominated to his position on the court, added: “Simply because people disagree with an opinion is not a basis for criticizing the legitimacy of the court.”
The chief justice is absolutely right to be concerned about Americans losing faith in the Supreme Court: A June Gallup Poll found that a record low 25% of respondents say they have confidence in the court – down from 40% two years ago.
The hard truth, however, is that Roberts must pin the blame for the loss of confidence in the Supreme Court on himself and his five fellow conservative justices.
Decisions delivered by the conservative justices this past term on hot-button issues such as abortion, climate change regulations and gun laws felt more like rulings written by the Republican National Committee than the highest court in the land.
The most glaringly partisan decision overturned Roe v. Wade, ending a constitutional right guaranteed to women since 1973. Roberts voted to uphold Mississippi’s law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy but didn’t join his conservative colleagues in Roe’s reversal, a ruling that nearly two-thirds of Americans disagree with, according to a July CNN poll.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, the high court has fallen from a 70% approval rating in 2020 to 48% this year – the lowest since Pew started tracking public approval of the court in 1987. But the Dobbs v. Jackson decision to overturn Roe isn’t the only reason for the court’s precipitous drop in the eyes of Americans.
The same week that the Supreme Court ruled that states should decide if a woman has the fundamental right to control her own body, the six conservative justices – including Roberts – struck down a century-old New York state law that required people seeking to carry a concealed weapon to satisfy additional requirements designed to reduce gun violence.
That decision came just weeks after a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, that left 10 dead, and at a time when a July CNN poll found that 66% of Americans wanted stricter gun control laws, up from 60% in 2019. The obvious discrepancies with how the public views these decisions have led many to believe, rightly or not, that the conservative justices were delivering decisions grounded in politics, not the law.
The same can be said about the court’s rulings on matters pertaining to religion: The court appeared to champion the GOP’s goal of eroding the wall between church and state, with a pair of rulings that again pitted the six conservative justices including Roberts against the three liberal ones. One case held that the state of Maine could use taxpayer funds to support private schools where religious education is taught; the other sided with a public high school coach, ruling that he had a constitutionally protected right to pray, sometimes with team members present, on the sidelines of the football field after games concluded.
These same six conservative Supreme Court justices limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to broadly regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants, which was viewed as a win for the GOP that has long opposed climate-related regulations and a loss for the Biden administration. Roberts wrote that decision himself.
Two more 6-3 rulings in which conservatives prevailed this term limit protections for criminal defendants while making it more difficult to hold police accountable for violating a person’s constitutional rights.
All of this helps explain the recent Pew poll that found only 28% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view the Supreme Court favorably, compared with 73% of Republicans and those who lean Republican who held a favorable opinion about the court. It marks the largest partisan gap in terms of views of the court in the 35 years Pew has conducted this poll.
If Roberts wants to improve the legitimacy of the court, then he should direct his attention to his fellow conservative justices – not to the millions of Americans who rightly view this 6-3 conservative court as little more than an arm of the GOP.
Barring that, the chief justice should not be surprised if a future Congress controlled by Democrats reforms, or even expands, the Supreme Court, in hopes of increasing confidence in our nation’s highest court for the millions who have lost it.