Washington is broken. Congress can't seem to reach any decisions, much less achieve consensus on the big challenges facing our country. And over in the executive branch, President Obama has accomplished next to nothing in his second term. America has noticed, with approval ratings for both Obama and Congress in the cellar.
But there's one branch of government that's still doing stuff, whether you like it or not. Yes, the Supreme Court actually issues decisions — and, what's more, about two thirds of decisions in this recently concluded term were unanimous (including striking down President Obama's recess appointments and ruling that police need a warrant to search smartphones).
Now, it's not as if the Supreme Court is above the political fray. Nor is the Supreme Court particularly popular, with confidence in the institution at a middling 30 percent. As the Los Angeles Times recently noted, "people have more confidence in the court than in any other arm of government, but that may not be saying that much when confidence in the presidency stands at 29 percent and in the Congress at 7 percent."
While the Supreme Court and the presidency have roughly the same level of confidence from the public today, the presidency has plummeted far more in the last two decades. In 1991, Gallup said 72 percent of Americans had confidence in the presidency, versus 48 percent for the Supreme Court. Today they are essentially even.
So why is the court faring (relatively) better than the other two branches of government? Why is this institution (mostly) retaining its stature, while Congress and the president are so rapidly shedding theirs?
Here's one possibility: Supreme Court justices haven't been nearly as susceptible to the dangers and detriments of our nonstop digital world as congressmen and the president have.
For instance, because cameras aren't allowed in the courts, there is little chance for justices to showboat or fall prey to viral gaffes. There's little risk of them being overexposed, too. Ask yourself: Whose voice are you more familiar with — Barack Obama's, John Boehner's, or John Roberts'? Most of us rarely even hear the Supreme Court justices speak.
Transparency is generally positive. But there is a danger that technology has created a situation in which America is tipping too far toward direct democracy — an outcome the Founders feared. And the justices have been far less susceptible to this than congressmen and the president.
Lifetime appointments also help, granting them immunity from activists and lobbyists who increasingly try to "work the refs" (or, in some cases, urge their premature retirement for political purposes). There is no need to pander to one's base when one doesn't have to run for re-election — a stark contrast to the other two (elected) branches of government. They also don't need to raise money for re-election, so no need to pander to the outside groups, since there really is no outside game. The court of public opinion matters little here.
Supreme Court justices have only eight colleagues, and they know they are each going to be around for a long, long time. That is bound to change the way they all interact. Imagine if Ted Cruz knew he would never have another job, and that his key to success was to occasionally persuade at least four of his colleagues — say, John McCain, Rand Paul, Mitch McConnell, and Chuck Schumer — to join with him. "The court has institutional reasons to be collegial," said legal analyst and attorney Willy Jay on a recent episode of the Political Wire podcast.
Yes, a lot of these things have always been true of the Supreme Court. But that's the thing — as revolutions in culture, connectedness, technology, and politics have dramatically changed the way we scrutinize the legislative and executive branches, and the way each operates, the Supreme Court has been relatively sheltered, and thus relatively stable in the public's mind.
And let's not underestimate this, too: John Roberts is a good leader.
Roberts is keenly interested in preserving the integrity of the court (some go so far as to suggest Roberts ruled in favor of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate as an intentional way to preserve the institution's legitimacy), and has probably had to exercise real leadership in corralling so many unanimous decisions. Agree with him or not, he is getting things done.
The presidency is not powerless, and Obama could surely have shown more leadership than he has in recent years. Instead, he has been ranked by voters to be the worst president since World War II. Meanwhile, being speaker of the House these days is tantamount to herding cats. So perhaps the Supreme Court really is America's final vestige of actual leadership — a group of adults who make up their minds about something, and then it happens.
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