Rebuilding Public Trust and Confidence in the Courts

Article excerpt

Affordable Care Act latest controversial ruling to spark polarization and disagreement

The recent high profile decision by the United States Supreme Court upholding the Obama administration's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was met with surprise in many circles. A national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, released shortly after the decision, found that the top single-word reactions to the court's decision are "disappointed" and "surprised." While "disappointed" is by far the top reaction among those who disapprove of the decision, "good," "surprised" and "happy" are the top words among those who approve of the ruling.

The court's decision in the Health Care Cases was unexpected not just for its outcome but also because of Chief Justice Roberts' participation in writing the majority opinion, which upheld the health care law's individual mandate, a controversial provision that requires all Americans to purchase minimum essential health care coverage. Many predictions made before the ruling focused on the perceived political and ideological preferences of the justices, and assumed that Roberts would join the four dissenting justices in voting to overturn the law. Instead, the majority opinion, authored by Roberts, upheld the individual mandate as a tax, authorized by Congress' enumerated constitutional power to "lay and collect taxes."

Some commentators have described Roberts' opinion as an exercise in judicial statesmanship and restraint. References to the limited role of the judiciary in our constitutional framework contain sincere echoes of the vivid baseball analogy Roberts made in his Senate confirmation hearings about seeing a justice's role as "calling balls and strikes." The opinion's emphasis on judicial restraint reminds us that, while each justice may apply individual approaches to interpreting the law, each also endeavors to exercise appropriate restraint in extending the proper measure of deference to statutes enacted in Congress.

At the national level, public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is on the decline: some recent polls show that 75% of Americans believe judges'decisionsare influenced by their personal or political beliefs. In much media coverage of federal court decisions, the political affiliation of the president who appointed the particular federal judge or justice is prominently highlighted. The public is often left with the impression that U.S. Supreme Court justices vote based on their political philosophy, almost as if the court were a super-legislature voting on party lines. Favorable views of the U.S. Supreme Court have dipped below 50%, and public opinion has grown more negative since the ruling on the Affordable Care Act was released. A New York Times/CBS poll released on July 18th shows that 41% of Americans approve of the job the court is doing. The same share, 41%, expresses disapproval. A few weeks before the health care decision, the court's approval rating was higher, with 44% approving and 36% disapproving.

This polling in the wake of the health care decision seems to portray a continuing slide in public trust and confidence in the Supreme Court, and a public unwilling to accept the notion that Supreme Court justices are loyal to the law rather than their personal political preferences. …