The country is divided. There are those Americans furious that the Supreme Court is soon to take away the right to have an abortion. And there are those Americans furious that someone leaked that the Supreme Court was soon to take away the right to have an abortion.
Among those Americans angry with the anonymous leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade is the entire Republican Party. “Last night’s stunning breach was an attack on the independence of the Supreme Court,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, in a statement issued after the leak. “This lawless action should be investigated and punished as fully as possible. The Chief Justice must get to the bottom of it and the Department of Justice must pursue criminal charges if applicable.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told Fox News, “The leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion will do lasting damage to the integrity of the court and the independence of the judiciary.” And Senator Mike Lee of Utah wrote that because the Supreme Court relies on “decorum and confidentiality” to do its work, it is therefore “dangerous, despicable, and damaging” to leak its deliberations to the public. The Supreme Court, he declared, “is not a political body.”
He might also have added that it has a right to privacy.
In any case, McConnell, Cruz, Lee and the rest of their Republican colleagues must be joking.
The Supreme Court is, and has always been, a political body. That’s true of the justices, certainly. Over the course of the court’s history, most of them were chosen with political considerations in mind, to the point that many were politicians themselves. It’s true of the institution as well. The Supreme Court deals with political issues — not simply abstract questions of law — and operates within the context of political conflict and political struggle.
And the Supreme Court, right now, is an avowedly partisan institution, an unaccountable super-legislature controlled by men and women drawn from a cadre of conservative ideologues and apparatchiks, acting on behalf of the Republican Party and its allies. Whatever legitimacy it had retained was sacrificed in the drive to build the majority that seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and open the floodgates to harsh restrictions on the reproductive autonomy of millions of Americans.
When McConnell led the Senate Republican caucus in a blockade of President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court in 2016 and then killed what remained of the judicial filibuster the next year to place Neil Gorsuch in the seat instead, they diminished the legitimacy of the court. When those same Republicans looked past a credible accusation of sexual assault to confirm Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, they again diminished the legitimacy of the court. And when, with weeks left before the 2020 presidential election, Republicans ignored their own rule from four years earlier — that an election-year vacancy “should not be filled until we have a new president” — to place Amy Coney Barrett on the bench in a rushed, slapdash process, they once more diminished the legitimacy of the court.
What’s more, their occasional protests notwithstanding (in a speech last year at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, Barrett insisted the court was “not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks”), the court’s conservatives have done almost nothing to dispel the view that their majority is little more than the judicial arm of the Republican Party. They use “emergency” orders to issue sweeping rulings in favor of ideologically aligned groups; they invent new doctrines designed to undermine voting rights protections; and as we’ve just witnessed, they’ll let nothing, not even 50 years of precedent, stand in the way of a sweeping ideological victory.
No discussion of the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, or lack thereof, is complete without mention of the fact that its current composition is the direct result of our counter-majoritarian institutions. Only once in the past 30 years — in the 2004 election — has anything like a majority of the American electorate voted for a president who promised a conservative Supreme Court. The three members who cemented this particular conservative majority — Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett — were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and were confirmed by senators representing far fewer than half of all Americans.
The typical response to this point is to say we do not elect presidents by popular vote. And we don’t, that’s true. But Americans have always acted as if the popular vote conveys democratic legitimacy. That’s why supporters of Andrew Jackson condemned the “corrupt bargain” that placed John Quincy Adams in the White House in 1825, why many supporters of Samuel Tilden were furious with the compromise that gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency after the 1876 presidential election and why allies of George W. Bush were prepared to argue that he was the rightful winner of the 2000 election in the event he lost the Electoral College but won a majority of voters.
It matters whether a president has democratic legitimacy. Donald Trump did not. But rather than act with that in mind, he used his power to pursue the interests of a narrow ideological faction, giving its representatives free rein to shape the Supreme Court as they saw fit. The court, then, is stained by the same democratic illegitimacy that marked Trump and his administration.
Republicans seem to know this, and it helps explain why they’re so angry about the leak. They hope to write conservative ideology into the Constitution. For that to work, however, Americans need to believe that the court is an impartial arbiter of law, where each justice uses reason to come to the correct answer on any given issue of constitutional interpretation.
The leak throws that out the window. The leak makes it clear that the Supreme Court is a political body, where horse-trading and influence campaigns are as much a part of the process as pure legal reasoning.
If the court is a political body — if it is a partisan body — then a roused and unhappy public may decide to reject its judgments and authority. That public may ask itself why it should listen to a court that doesn’t heed its opinion. And it may decide that the time has come to reform the court and dismantle the ill-gotten majority that conservatives worked so hard to create.