A Supreme MessDan Rather and Elliot Kirschner Steady
A court lacking legitimacy
Simply put, the court has become a mess — less a hallowed marble edifice to constitutional probity than a dangerously petty and unrestrained mosh pit of dysfunction. Get your house in order, indeed. The black robes aren’t fooling anybody.
The court’s investigation into the leak of a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was a stunning failure of mission. The inquiry’s stated goal was not just to identify seriously lax practices at the court around information and technology (which the report did do). We were supposed to learn the name or names behind one of the gravest breaches of court protocol in history. And there, we got nothing.
When the draft opinion overturning Roe was leaked, it created a firestorm. It was rightly seen by those on the political left as representing a dangerous break in precedent, weak legal reasoning, and, most importantly, an attack on women’s health and basic rights. In response to the leak, there was no shortage of public handwringing on the part of court watchers and many of the justices themselves. Public speculation quickly jumped to who might have been the leaker and what might have been their motives. Perhaps not surprisingly, Republicans blamed Democrats, and Democrats blamed Republicans.
As we now know, the draft document ultimately ended up presaging the final decision. Was the leak a way to lock in wavering votes, as many people speculated, or to undercut the legitimacy of the majority, as others contended?
The leak investigation report only creates more questions and elevates the plausibility of theories that had seemed far-fetched. Could it be that some of the justices didn't want to find out the truth? And might it have been one of those justices (or one of their spouses or assistants) who was responsible for the leak?
What has encouraged this speculation is that the justices were not subjected to the same scrutiny in this investigation as everyone else at the court. If the justices think that’s acceptable because they are above reproach, that is only more evidence of how out of touch they are. The real conclusion is that the leak report is far from thorough.
In the wake of the report’s release, many observers started floating the names of Justices Alito and Thomas (as well as Thomas’s wife, Ginni) as the most likely leakers. In this case, the conjecture is purely circumstantial — the idea being that these anti-abortion hardliners had the most to gain by locking in the draft decision. Although both justices have shown a lack of ethical restraint in other matters.
In an attempt to tamp down this conjecture, the woman overseeing the investigation, United States Supreme Court Marshal Gail A. Curley, issued the following statement:
“During the course of the investigation, I spoke with each of the Justices, several on multiple occasions. The Justices actively cooperated in this iterative process, asking questions and answering mine. I followed up on all credible leads, none of which implicated the Justices or their spouses. On this basis, I did not believe that it was necessary to ask the Justices to sign sworn affidavits.”
Let us note that one of the court’s own, its “Marshal,” did the investigating. There was no independent investigation. And none of the justices was asked to testify under oath.
Is this, the whole summation, really sufficient? If the justices are upset that many Americans think it isn’t, they have only themselves to blame. We have a court that is losing the trust of a large swath of the American people. It is a court in which the ends increasingly justify the means, settled law counts for next to nothing, societal upheaval is trivialized, and self-described “conservative” objectives that would never pass in national legislation are turned into the law of the land by judicial decree.
We also have a majority of the justices on the court appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote (including three by the twice-impeached former holder of the office). We have had Supreme Court picks blocked (Merrick Garland, chosen by President Obama) and others rushed through (Amy Coney Barrett, appointed by President Trump) based solely on political expediency. As for Ginny Thomas, she is a known supporter of the Big Lie around the 2020 election.
The strange and as yet unsolved case of the Supreme Court leak, plus the inadequate investigation around it, leaves the court with a long, hard road to restoration of its reputation and authority.
And as bad as the leak was, it is a symptom of far more systemic rot. Respect must be earned. And it must be earned again once it has been squandered.