Opinion | The Supreme Court’s Big Trump Test Is Here

A generation after the Supreme Court stepped into a disputed presidential election, America is experiencing a creeping sense of déjà vu. Twenty-three years ago, a bare majority of the justices halted a recount in Florida, effectively handing the presidency to George W. Bush.

The specter of Bush v. Gore, the case that stands as a marker of how not to resolve searing political disputes, looms large as the Supreme Court is being called upon to address controversies with profound implications for the fortunes of the Republican front-runner in 2024.

The justices are feeling the heat nearly a year in advance of an election rather than in the fraught weeks following the vote. The questions today are more complex — there are at least three separate matters, not one — and all revolve around the Capitol insurrection that transpired across the street from the Supreme Court Building in 2021.

On Friday, the court turned down Special Counsel Jack Smith’s request for fast-track review of Donald Trump’s claim that former presidents have “absolute immunity” from criminal prosecution for their conduct while in office. But that critical question will almost certainly return to the Supreme Court soon: The D.C. federal appeals court is hearing the case on Jan. 9 and will probably rule shortly thereafter.

The court has agreed to hear a case asking whether Jan. 6 rioters can be charged with obstructing an official proceeding, another key part of Mr. Smith’s Jan. 6 case against Mr. Trump. And most dramatically, the former president will surely ask the justices to reverse a ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court that, if affirmed, could pave the way for an untold number of states to erase his name from the ballot.

For a tribunal that is supposed to sit far away from, not astride, politics, that’s a lot for the Supreme Court to handle. And this is happening at a rough moment for the court. In August 2000, on the eve of Bush v. Gore, 62 percent of Americans approved of how the Supreme Court was conducting itself. Now, recent polling shows that nearly that portion (58 percent) disapproves of the institution, a figure that scrapes historic lows for the court.

Yet the multiplicity of cases affords the justices an opportunity to avoid pinning themselves in still further if they keep an eye on how potential decisions will — collectively — shape the political landscape. The point is not that getting the underlying legal questions “right” is irrelevant. But when the stakes are this high and the legal questions are novel, the justices have a duty to hand down decisions that resonate across the political spectrum — or at least that avoid inciting violence in the streets. That’s not subverting the rule of law; it’s preserving it.

Extraordinary times call for a court that embraces the art of judicial statecraft.

The trap the court finds itself in is largely a function of its own behavior, both on and off the bench. The 6-to-3 conservative supermajority has radically expanded gun rights, circumscribed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to protect the environment, all but eviscerated race-based affirmative action, punched holes through the wall separating church from state and — most notoriously — eliminated the constitutional right to abortion. The past year has also seen increasing public scrutiny of the justices’ apparent ethical lapses, sunlight that pushed the justices to adopt their first code of ethics.

A universe in which the court somehow splits the difference — for example, keeping Mr. Trump on the ballot while refusing to endorse (if not affirmatively repudiating) his conduct and spurning his kinglike claim to total immunity — could go a long way toward reducing the temperature of the coming election cycle. Such an outcome could also help restore at least some of the court’s credibility.

We understand that trying too hard to project an image of nonpartisanship carries risks. Recent reporting on the twists and turns of how the conservative majority engineered the end of Roe v. Wade shows how curating rulings can make justices look too clever by half — if not outright deceptive. Delaying the grant of review in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, in which some of the conservative justices apparently knew they had the votes to overrule Roe, created a false impression that the court was struggling over the matter — when the reality was anything but. Indeed, the Dobbs experience and its aftermath might have led some justices to sour on the idea of judicial statecraft — especially if their internal deliberations end up getting leaked to the press. No jurist wants to be seen as a cunning manipulator of public opinion.

And yet, some of the court’s most important rulings across its history have represented just the kind of high constitutional politics that we believe are called for now. The court’s recognition of its power to strike down acts of Congress in Marbury v. Madison came in a context in which the direct effect of the ruling was to restrain the court while slapping the Jefferson administration on the wrist.

Its concerted effort to produce unanimous opinions in some of the landmark civil rights cases of the 1950s and 1960s reflected a view that speaking in one voice was more important than the legal nuances of what was said. (This, perhaps, is why no justice publicly dissented from Friday’s decision not to fast-track the immunity question.)

The court’s landmark rejection of President Richard Nixon’s executive privilege claim in the Watergate tapes case, which helped to directly precipitate Nixon’s resignation, came in a unanimous opinion written by Nixon’s handpicked chief justice.

This is also the best way to understand Chief Justice John Roberts’s much-maligned 2012 vote in the first serious challenge to the Affordable Care Act — upholding the individual mandate as a tax while rejecting it as a valid regulation of interstate commerce.

What those (and other) rulings have in common was the sense, across the Supreme Court, that the country would be better off with a court that took appropriate measure of how its rulings would be received beyond the details of the legal analysis the justices provided.

The court failed that test in Bush v. Gore — handing down a ruling widely perceived as Republican-appointed justices installing a Republican president via a strained (and oddly cabined) reading of the Equal Protection Clause and helping to precipitate the downturn in public opinion that figures so prominently in these cases.

As the Jan. 6 cases put the justices right in the middle of the 2024 election, the question is whether they’ll understand the imperative of not letting history repeat.

Ultimately, these contemporary disputes may not provide a perfect opportunity for the Supreme Court to right that wrong. But if one thing’s for certain, it’s that neither the court nor the country can afford another election-altering ruling that takes such obvious partisan sides.

Steven V. Mazie (@stevenmazie) is the author of “American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court” and is the Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. Stephen I. Vladeck (@steve_vladeck), a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, writes the One First weekly Supreme Court newsletter and is the author of “The Shadow Docket: How the Supreme Court Uses Stealth Rulings to Amass Power and Undermine the Republic.”

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