Aaron Miller: Supreme Court relies on the public’s judgment

Aaron Miller

According to a recent poll by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, only 16% of Americans have “a great deal of confidence” in the US Supreme Court. That means a whopping 84% of Americans have “only some confidence” or “hardly any confidence at all” in the highest court in the land.

In our system of government, the court, at least theoretically, serves as a check on the powers of the legislative and executive branches. It is also the final arbiter in our legal system. Their decisions can have a dramatic and long-lasting impact on our daily lives. But the court has no power or means to enforce its decisions. Thus, it is vital for the American people to have full faith and confidence in the court. Since the justices serve lifetime appointments and the people have no power to recall them, the justices may not care about popular opinion or public sentiment.

To maintain their legitimacy and objectivity in the eyes of the American people, we need to feel as if the court’s decisions are based on precedent, scholarship, history and sound legal theory rather than political partisanship. Americans want the court to be fair and impartial — to protect the interests and rights of the people.

Although there may be some concerns about some of the court’s recent decisions in individual cases, I think the lack of public confidence in the institution is due to concerns about some of the justices’ acceptance of lavish gifts. According to ProPublica, since 2004, the justices have raked in gifts with a combined value of almost $3 million dollars. I thought selection to the Supreme Court was a high honor and a way to serve your country — not a ticket to line your pockets. And this is not a partisan issue. Conservative and liberal justices alike have accepted gifts.

I’m sure that most attorneys and judges living in Columbus know the rules. They know that a judge must act ethically. But the standards go beyond that. Just the appearance of improper behavior is contrary to the code of conduct for federal judges.

The American Bar Association’s Code of Conduct for United States Judges reads, “A judge should respect and comply with the law and should act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” Are the Supreme Court justices living up to that standard?

The code continues, “A judge should not allow family, social, political, financial, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment.” A financial gift might sway, even subconsciously, a justice’s opinion in a decision.

Lastly, the Bar’s code stresses how important it is for judges to avoid the appearance of unethical behavior: “An appearance of impropriety occurs when reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances disclosed by a reasonable inquiry, would conclude that the judge’s honesty, integrity, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge is impaired.” I think most of us have reasonable minds, and regardless of political party affiliation, could agree that a justice taking valuable gifts would at least make us wonder about the honesty and integrity of the court.

The Supreme Court is famously independent, without any oversight. This, combined with lifetime tenure for justices, has eroded the public’s lack of confidence in the court. Once it is gone, regaining public trust and legitimacy is difficult to get back.

My question is simply, why can the Supreme Court justices accept gifts and at least give the appearance of impropriety if judges at other levels would face serious consequences for this kind of behavior?

Aaron Miller is one of The Republic’s community columnists and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. He has a doctorate in history and is an associate professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus. Send comments to [email protected].