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The Verdict Is In: The Supreme Court Has a Public Relations Problem

Published on Nov. 30, 2022, at 2:52p.m.
by Seth Self.

On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, overturning Roe v. Wade and eliminating the constitutional right to abortion.

The decision prompted intense backlash and protests across the United States but also led many to question the integrity of the Supreme Court. For a body whose authority depends on its reputation, issuing unpopular opinions such as these raises serious long-term implications for the institution.

But how do decisions by the Supreme Court overlap with public relations?

Photo by Ian Hutchinson via Unsplash

For starters, the definition of public relations is the management of mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its many publics. This definition can be applied to the Supreme Court; as the highest court in the United States, it serves only one public: the American people.

It is important, therefore, that the American people hold the Supreme Court in high esteem. For its rulings to carry weight, the people must believe that the court possesses integrity and rules without bias. In that way, the public and its officials will more readily accept its rulings as law, even if the decision is not popular.

This perception of the Supreme Court as an impartial body has been jeopardized by recent court rulings and nominees. In 2018, President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice, and despite a credible accusation of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh was confirmed.

Just two years later, Amy Coney Barrett was also nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court by the U.S. Senate under then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. However, this time, the process occurred only eight days prior to the 2020 election, deviating from precedent set in 2016 when now-Attorney General Merrick Garland was nominated by President Barack Obama. In that Supreme Court nomination process, McConnell refused to hold proceedings, arguing that it was too close to a national election to confirm a new Supreme Court justice.

McConnell’s decision to hold confirmation hearings for Barrett — where the proximity of her nomination to the 2020 presidential election, though shorter than Garland’s to the same contest in 2016, was ignored — spurred substantial criticism, with some arguing that it was a hypocritical move. In the eyes of these dissenting voices, the only thing that had changed was the political ideology of the president. While Obama was a Democrat, Trump was a Republican, the same party as McConnell and the Senate majority.

The Supreme Court has grown more unpopular in recent years, evidenced by the displeasure of the public at rulings such as Dobbs. Since these rulings were decided in part by controversial justices, the image of the court has suffered even further. With the institution lacking the voting influence of the American people, coupled with a no-term-limit, lifetime appointment, questions continue to rise about the long-term viability of the Supreme Court in its current form.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm via Unsplash

This is where public relations comes into play: How does the Supreme Court repair its image with the American public?

It is not the issue that the court should rule however Americans believe they should; rather, it is a necessity for the court to be viewed as an impartial institution regardless of the decision. Despite the hyper-partisan environment of recent years and decades, the Supreme Court had long been viewed most favorably of all the branches of government. Looking at historical trends, the court’s approval rating consistently stayed positive until recent years, even while issuing controversial rulings such as Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that legalized same-sex marriage, or NFIB v. Sebelius, which upheld the Affordable Care Act.

That favorability rating is dropping, however, with only 25% of Americans now expressing confidence in the institution. This public relations crisis will have long-term implications for the Supreme Court going forward; in Federalist #78, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton described it as the weakest branch of government, as it has “no influence over either the sword or the purse.” In other words, it needs Congress or the presidency to back up its decisions.

If the image of the Supreme Court continues to decline among voters, it follows that the officials representing them may likewise start to have doubts about the court, as well. Some legislators in Congress are already starting to respond to such concerns, with several — such as Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey — introducing bills to either expand the court or introduce term limits.

Photo by Jimmy Woo Man Tsing via Unsplash

Those propositions are just some of the ways the Supreme Court could see its reputation restored. Justices are now commenting on the state of the institution to stress its impartiality; for example, Chief Justice John Roberts recently defended the court and aimed to assure Americans that it is not compromised.

As with other public relations campaigns, the restoration of the Supreme Court’s reputation should focus on rebuilding trust. Whether that comes from more justices listening to the concerns of the people or by congressional action, only by rebuilding the relationship between the court and the American public — while stressing the judiciary’s impartiality — can the court regain standing in the public eye.

Regardless of how these concerns are addressed, the verdict is clear: The Supreme Court needs public relations.

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