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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Estrich: Kagan right on risks to High Court

By Susan Estrich
Published: September 30, 2023, 6:01am

Justice Elena Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, publicly weighed in last week on what is really a crisis facing the United States Supreme Court. The crisis centers on ethics and, more broadly, the legitimacy of the court as an institution. The Supreme Court doesn’t have an army to enforce its decisions. They are the final arbiters of the rule of law because of their stature, not their enforcement power.

That stature has taken a beating in recent years for at least two reasons. One is the view that the Supreme Court is just another political institution, as evidenced by the number of 6-3 decisions with the six being Republican appointees and the three being those appointed by Democrats. The Dobbs case is the example cited most often, where the Court overruled its own precedent in Roe v. Wade.

“To be completely honest,” Kagan said in a wide-ranging conversation with the dean of Notre Dame Law School, “it has to be said that some of the more important cases do fall along pretty predictable lines.” Those cases include not only the abortion decision but also the court’s rulings on affirmative action, student loans, LGBTQ rights and climate change.

“When all of these are falling 6 to 3,” she said, “it doesn’t strike me as surprising that people would talk about that.”

People are doing more than talk. Surveys have found that respect for the Supreme Court is at an all-time low. The willingness to overrule precedent, Kagan noted, can easily translate into cynicism about the court itself: “Adherence to precedent is important because it prevents the court from looking like a political actor, like an ideologically driven actor.”

Why did the court overrule Roe v. Wade? Why did it change its mind on affirmative action? Kagan was unusually frank. “You’re right that there have been times recently where there have been ideological divides with one side overturning precedent. … When courts just overrule things, willy-nilly, it’s usually because, or sometimes it’s because, new judges have come on the scene.”

The new judges are, obviously, the Trump appointees who have given the court a solid conservative majority. But it is not only the addition of new justices, and the overruling of precedent, that have contributed to the crisis of legitimacy. On the same day Kagan spoke, ProPublica published a new report about Justice Clarence Thomas, who has been criticized for not disclosing financial ties to a Texas billionaire, and twice attended an event for donors to the political network established by two other billionaires, Charles and David Koch. ProPublica has also singled out Justice Samuel Alito for taking a luxury trip with a billionaire who often has cases before the Supreme Court.

Thomas and Alito are solidly in the conservative bloc, trips or no trips. But the appearance of impropriety is telling. There have been calls for the Supreme Court to adopt an ethical code that would prevent such appearances, but to date, the court has failed to act.

I’ve known Elena since her law school days. She does not speak out rashly. She clearly knew her words would get attention, and they should. Kagan’s remarks increase the pressure on the court to act. And it should, for its own sake, and the sake of the country.