Roberts blames confirmation fights for SCOTUS unpopularity

Roberts blames confirmation fights for SCOTUS unpopularity
© Getty Images

Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concerns Wednesday night about the public perception of the Supreme Court.

While speaking at the New England Law School in Boston, Roberts blamed what he called the mischaracterization of court decisions and sharply divisive political nomination hearings for the court's poor ratings.

He also argued that the court often has "no policy view" on the matters it adjudicates.


“When we issue a decision it’s usually discussed as ‘Oh, you’re in favor of this,’ or ‘You’re in favor of that,’” he said at the Law Day celebration.

“In fact, a ruling often is that who ever does get to decide this or that is allowed to do it and it’s not unconstitutional, it’s consistent with law," Roberts continued. "We often have no policy view on the matter at all.”

The Senate, which has to vote to approve court nominations, hasn’t helped either. Roberts said confirmation votes for the last three justices named to the court came down strictly on party lines or close to it.  

“That suggests to me that the process is being used for something other than ensuring the qualifications of the nominees,” he said. “It’s a process now where members of the committee frequently ask questions they know would be inappropriate for the nominee to answer.”

Though not a process the justices can change, Roberts said the way the hearings are conducted could give the public an unfortunate perception of the court and its individual members.

“When you have a sharply political divisive hearing process it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms,” he said. “If Democrats and Republicans have been fighting so fiercely about whether you’re going to be confirmed, it’s natural for some member of the public to think, well you must be identified in a particular way as a result of that process.”

But Roberts said the justices “don’t work as Democrats or Republicans.”

Regardless, the chief justice said he isn’t fazed by criticism of the court or himself personally, such as when presidential hopeful Donald Trump said Roberts “turned out to be a nightmare for conservatives.”

“If we uphold a particular political decision, that remains the decision of the political branches, and the fact that it may lead to criticism of us is often a mistake," he said. “We do have to be above or apart from the criticism because we of course make unpopular decisions, very unpopular decisions.”