“The Supreme Court, Public Opinion and the Fate of Roe”

Adam Liptak NYT Sidebar column:

But is there indeed evidence that public opinion influences the court?

The justices themselves have suggested that there is at least a correlation between the popular will and judicial outcomes.

“Rare indeed is the legal victory — in court or legislature — that is not a careful byproduct of an emerging social consensus,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in “The Majesty of the Law,” published three years before her retirement in 2006.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020, wrote in a 1997 law review article that “judges do read the newspapers and are affected, not by the weather of the day, as distinguished constitutional law professor Paul Freund once said, but by the climate of the era.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in remarks at a law school in 2011, said that the court did not take public opinion into account in its rulings. At the same time, she said, the court manages to reflect the public’s views.

“On the vast majority of cases,” she said, “I bet we’re right with them.”

Books have been devoted to the subject. An important one, published in 2009 by Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University, set out its thesis in its subtitle. It was called “The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution.”

But a prescient 2010 article in The Supreme Court Review by Richard H. Pildes, another law professor at N.Y.U., questioned the conventional view.

For starters, Professor Pildes wrote, it is hard to know just what is meant by public opinion. Is it what people tell pollsters? The views of political elites? The actions of elected lawmakers?

“Public opinion can be very nebulous,” he said in an interview. “It can be very dependent on how questions are framed.”

And what is the mechanism through which public opinion, however defined, influences the justices?

“How is the court supposed to be constrained and by what?” Professor Pildes asked….

Professor Pildes, who served on the commission President Biden appointed to explore proposals to overhaul the Supreme Court, said that any new effort to expand the size of the court faced a steep uphill climb in light of the polarized political environment and the Senate’s filibuster rule.

His article explored another way in which the court could be tethered to public opinion.

“The one powerful mechanism for ensuring that the court is in line with majoritarian views is the appointments process, which in the United States is more politically structured than in some countries,” he wrote, adding, “If the cycle of appointing justices tracked the cycles of electoral politics, there would be strong reason to expect the court continually to reflect the dominant views of the president and Senate.”

But at least two phenomena undermine that expectation. First, appointments do not track electoral cycles. President Donald J. Trump, aided by the hardball tactics of Senate Republicans, appointed three justices in a single term. His most recent predecessors — Barack Obama and George W. Bush — appointed two justices each over their eight-year presidencies.

A second reason the appointment process turns out to be a poor proxy for public opinion is the length of time justices now stay on the court. “Up until the late 1960s, the average term of service was around 15 years,” the Biden commission’s report found. “By contrast, the average tenure of the justices who have left the court since 1970 has been roughly 26 years.”

If it seemed in recent decades that the justices were more or less in sync with the public, that may simply have been because the swing justice, by happenstance, mostly reflected public sentiment.

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