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Supreme confidence, shaken

It should come as no surprise that in the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, less than half of Americans surveyed -- 44 percent -- said they approve of theU.S. Supreme Court. Furthermore, three-quarters said they believed individual personal and political views sometimes determine the justices' votes, rather than legal analysis.

There was a time when such an assessment would be shocking. Of the three branches of the federal government, the judicial had always been rated far higher in public approval, and in reliability for objectivity, than either the legislative or the executive. That remains so today, but only because the other two have fallen into such general disrepute among voters.

In the same Times/CBS Poll, Congress gets a dismal 13 percent approval to 77 percent disapproval. And only 31 percent say the country under present leadership is on the right track, to 62 percent who say it's heading in the wrong direction. But the decline in confidence in the high court is also seen in the fact that only 33 percent of those surveyed now say Supreme Court tenure should continue to be for lifetime, compared to 60 percent who oppose that notion.

The one-time reverential public attitude toward the nation's nine top jurists, and toward the court as an institution, obviously has been undergoing deterioration ever since its 2000 split decision in the Florida presidential recount controversy, which awarded the presidency to Republican George W. Bushover Democrat Al Gore.

In that case, the court conspicuously declared that the ruling should not be taken as a precedent in its departure from traditional practice of leaving state election disputes to the state courts to decide. The damage to the federal judicial system's reputation was accurately foreseen in Justice John Paul Stevens' dissenting opinion.

He wrote then, 10 years before his 2010 retirement from the Court: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an important guardian of the rule of law."

A similar judgment could have been rendered a decade later when the court issued an astonishingly blind appraisal of the real ramifications of its decision in the Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate and individual contributions in political elections. The results are being seen this year more emphatically than ever, in the record spending for the 2012 presidential campaign by both parties and all their officially unaffiliated but obviously associated political action committees.

The voice of the individual voter, whatever his or her preference, is being drowned out by the cacophony of special interest advertising for or against candidates on radio and television. An individual like tycoon Sheldon Adelson was able to pump millions into the campaign of Newt Ginrich to keep him afloat in the Republican presidential nomination fight long after he had already been rejected by the voters.

Some 75 years ago, PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelttried to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices to overcome its opposition to key elements of his New Deal agenda. The effort created a public uproar, and Congress slapped him down, so sacrosanct was the court at the time.

One can only wonder what the reaction would be today if a similar attempt was made. The fact that the latest Times/CBS Poll says only a third of voters surveyed believe the Supremes should have lifetime appointment, and nearly two-thirds disagree, speaks volumes about how far confidence in the court has fallen in public esteem.

The nation's eyes will be on the court again soon as it is scheduled to render judgment on the constitutionality of the new health-care insurance act, unlovingly labeled "Obamacare" by its critics. However it decides, the once untouchable Supreme Court will remain the center of controversy over how politically blind is the justice it now dispenses.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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