The Politicization of the Supreme Court

Sean Ehmann ’24

Contributor

The United States is a polarized nation. Congress is sharply divided along party lines and executive policies shift drastically from one administration to the next. However, the third branch of government is meant to stay above partisan squabbles, to be truly neutral referees for these political shenanigans. That is, of course, the judicial branch. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), to which justices are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate, houses the most exalted judges in all of America.

Despite these lofty intentions, SCOTUS is not by any means above polarization. The Court is sharply divided among ideological lines with conservative justices appointed by Republicans currently holding a strong 6-3 majority over their more liberal, Democrat- ic appointed colleagues. Many hot button political issues affecting the entire country will be decided by this court, like abortion, environmental protections and much more. But how can Americans trust these decisions when they are clearly so polarized?

We can see the evidence of this shift towards a politicized SCOTUS in how nominations and confirmations to the highest court have changed over time. As recently as the 1990s, individuals nominated by the President were confirmed almost unanimously, an extremely rare occurrence for the United States Senate. Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency (2001-2009) the number of senators opposing nominees started to increase.

During the Obama era (2009- 2017), two justices were confirmed with a bipartisan two-thirds majority each. However, in 2016, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to even consider Obama’s nominee. Even though the election wasn’t for another 8 months, he claimed that there was too little time. Democrats responded in kind, voting almost unanimously against all three of Trump’s nominees. This forced Mitch McConnell to lower the number of votes needed for SCOTUS confirmations to a simple majority. After the untimely, unfortunate passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, McConnell pushed through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett just two months prior to the 2020 election, violating his own previously established reasoning.

Now, after President Biden nominates Ketanji Brown Jackson to the court, the GOP comes out swinging, opposing her on all fronts. To their chagrin, she achieved the majority vote.

This is all to say that the once-bipartisan process of handing someone a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land is now rife with partisan shenanigans.

With the court set to hear cases that deal with reproductive rights, guns, education, elections and more, it is important that Americans have trust in their judicial system. Unfortunately, polling shows that this is not exactly the case, and trust in SCOTUS has declined by 15% since 2019.

Further data indicates that citizens want non-partisan justices. 84% say that Supreme Court Justices should not bring their own political views into how they decide cases. A similar poll reveals that the majority of Americans believe that the SCOTUS is “too partisan. ” Democrats tend to think that Republican appointed justices are politically-biased, while Republicans believe the opposite.

The Supreme Court is at a crossroads. Will it continue to follow the trend of congress and the presidency, becoming more polarized with each passing year? Or will it truly be able to blaze the non-partisan path towards reform that Americans want and need?

Editor’s Note: The day this article was uploaded, Friday, June 24th, The Supreme Court effectively overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, clearing the way for state-wide abortion bans. The Judges that voted in favour are the same ones that were appointed through the partisan meddling by Republicans addressed in this article.

Photo Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty