The Splintered Supreme Court

Trevor Sullivan Weinstein, ‘25

 

The Supreme Court is broken. Throughout the past 30 years, as presidents have come and gone, the Court has gone from one of the most trusted government entities to a place of politics and partisanship. Originally, the Supreme Court was created to protect the civil rights and liberties of all Americans and to rule on cases that violated the Constitution. In the 21st century, it has become a battleground for presidents and legislators fighting to control the country through law.

It’s important to note that both political parties point to different events as the beginning of partisan politics on the Court. Republicans point to the 1987 confirmation hearings of Robert Bork, who failed to be confirmed to the Court, while Democrats mention Merrick Garland’s 2016 nomination when Republicans deemed it too close to the election to nominate a justice. 

In recent years, there have been attacks by conservatives on many important cases and rulings by the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade being an example. These attacks were launched due to the conservative majority that took hold of the court because of President Donald Trump’s nominations. After President Trump was elected, he got the rare chance of a president to nominate three justices to the court. Those included Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. All three of these judges have extremely conservative records and have cemented a conservative majority of six to the three more liberal justices.

The major tipping point of the Court entering the public eye was the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault to the near degree of rape by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, sending shockwaves through the hearings. Immediately after the accusation, Republican congressmen went on the offensive. They hired an outside prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to pick apart and cross-examine her story. They refused to subpoena Mark Judge, the key witness to the attack. They continued unrelenting attacks on Dr. Blasey Ford’s credibility, as well as any other minor detail that made her seem like a liar. The next day, Justice Kavanaugh went on the offensive as well. He caused theatrics in the hearings, crying and dodging questions. He used the same terminology to attack Dr. Blasey Ford which was eerily reminiscent of President Trump’s tweets. He bombarded Dr. Blasey Ford with questions about her memory, and made comments about college life, trying to normalize his actions while understating what had happened. He called the accusations a “political hit job orchestrated by the Clintons and outside left-wing opposition groups”. And after all of the crocodile tears and the denials, he was confirmed to the court.

The ramifications of the confirmation went even further than the cases he was to rule on, it went to the idea of believing women, and believing survivors. After he was confirmed, it felt like a stab in the gut to a majority of the women in the U.S. and the world who had experienced something similar. Of course, this wasn’t the only time this had happened, with an almost replica of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation scandal still ringing in the ears of the American public. He, too, had been accused of sexual harassment, and the Republicans once again picked apart the accuser, Anita Hill. They questioned her just like they did with Dr. Blasey Ford. Republicans also used FBI interviews of Ms. Hill against her, as she detailed certain acts and conversations with Justice Thomas in the hearings, but not in the FBI interview. They used this discrepancy to attack her credibility and the plausibility of her accusations. These same tactics repeated themselves in the Ford hearings nearly 30 years later. 

The most recent Supreme Court Justice that former President Donald Trump nominated was Amy Coney Barrett. This nomination was in response to the death of American trailblazer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The narrative of nominating a justice “too close to the election” went out the window when Republicans jumped at the chance to expand the conservative majority on the court. They completely disregarded the prior precedent that they set, and rushed ahead to confirm Justice Barrett, who was notorious for her anti-abortion views. This confirmation immediately caused more doubt and distrust for the court by the majority of Americans, as it seemed more like a political battlefield than ever before. In fact, 44% of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Supreme Court, and 84% of Americans say that the court should not bring their personal political views into their decisions.

The final, and most recent scandal to rock the highest court in the land once again involves Justice Clarence Thomas. It was recently revealed by the January 6th Special Committee that his wife, Ginni Thomas, sent alarming text messages to then-President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. The texts perpetuated many false narratives popular with Republicans in response to Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. In one text message talking about President Trump’s attorney, Sidney Powell, she said “Sidney and her team are getting inundated with evidence of fraud, […] Make a plan. Release the Kraken and save us from the left taking America down.” When these texts were released, it caused the public to question the validity of Justice Thomas’s ability to rule on cases involving the 2020 and 2024 elections, as well as cases involving the January 6th attack on the Capitol. The relationship between Justice Thomas and Ginni Thomas is very strong, as shown when Justice Thomas referred to them in his memoir as “One being — an amalgam” and called her his “best friend.” Calls for Justice Thomas to recuse himself from all cases involving those subjects, or even resign, came from 24 House and Senate Democrats. In time though, as the news cycle continued, the calls for resignation and recusal started to fade out of the minds of the American people.

After all of the scandals and fights that have happened concerning the Supreme Court, it brings into question, do the American people trust the Supreme Court? Even with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, there was still a circus in the confirmation hearings. Is it time to abolish the court? Is it time to expand the court? Will the court ever be completely bipartisan? These are the questions that the American people are asking, and will continue to ask as long as the political rulings and confirmations continue to happen.

 

Bibliography:

“About the Supreme Court.” United States Courts, Uscourts.gov, https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/about#:~:text=The%20Judiciary%20Act%20of%201789%20gave%20the%20Supreme%20Court%20original,in%20accordance%20with%20the%20law). 

“Current Members.” Home – Supreme Court of the United States, Supreme Court of the United States, https://www.supremecourt.gov/about/biographies.aspx. 

Klein, Ezra. “The Ford-Kavanaugh Sexual Assault Hearings, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 28 Sept. 2018, https://www.vox.com/explainers/2018/9/27/17909782/brett-kavanaugh-christine-ford-supreme-court-senate-sexual-assault-testimony.

Serwer, Adam. “How Republicans Weaponized the FBI Against Anita Hill.” The Atlantic, 3 Oct. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/how-republicans-weaponized-fbi-against-anita-hill/571951. 

“Public’s Views of Supreme Court Turned More Negative before News of Breyer’s Retirement.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, Pew Research Center, 7 Feb. 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/02/02/publics-views-of-supreme-court-turned-more-negative-before-news-of-breyers-retirement/. 

Hakim, Danny, et al. “Texts Show Ginni Thomas’s Embrace of Conspiracy Theories.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/26/us/politics/ginni-thomas-donald-trump.html.