Skip to main content

Supreme Court puts its legitimacy at risk

By Eric Segall
May 12, 2014 -- Updated 1809 GMT (0209 HKT)
The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sit for their official photograph on October 8, 2010, at the Supreme Court. Front row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan. The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sit for their official photograph on October 8, 2010, at the Supreme Court. Front row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan.
HIDE CAPTION
Today's Supreme Court
John G. Roberts
Antonin Scalia
Anthony M. Kennedy
Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen G. Breyer
Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Sonia Sotomayor
Elena Kagan
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Poll finds public believes Supreme Court decides cases on political grounds
  • Eric Segall says Americans losing faith in the court because of its partisanship
  • He says court should televise its proceedings and judges shouldn't have life tenure
  • Segall: Extraordinary power of justices should be reined in by time limits, transparency

Editor's note: Eric Segall is the Kathryn and Lawrence Ashe Professor of Law at the Georgia State University College of Law. He has written more than 25 law review articles on the Supreme Court and the Constitution. He is the author of "Supreme Myths: Why the Supreme Court Is Not a Court and Its Justices Are Not Judges." He tweets regularly at @espinsegall and is a regular guest on XM radio's "Stand Up! with Pete Dominick." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The Supreme Court of the United States has long been a unique political and legal institution. Our justices are the only judges in the world who sit on a nation's highest court for life.

Their power to strike down the political decisions of the president, the Congress and the states (the power of judicial review) is nowhere spelled out in our Constitution. Yet, since the beginning, both the court and the American people have assumed that power to exist.

Eric Segall
Eric Segall

The justices don't act like normal judges bound by law (because they're not), but they are not quite lawmakers, either. Having neither the "purse nor the sword," the justices rely solely on the elected branches of government for the enforcement of their decisions.

Their power rests mostly on the prestige they hold with the governed, and lately, more and more of the governed are having grave doubts about the nine most powerful judges in the world.

Last week, a new poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic Party-allied pollster, for Democracy Corps set the social media world atwitter. More than 50% of those polled were reported to believe that the justices let "their own personal or political views influence their decisions," and more than 70% said that the justices should have fixed terms, not life tenure.

Not surprisingly, the poll revealed great support for television cameras in the Supreme Court, a move the justices have rejected for way too long. Over 85% of those polled also said that the justices should be bound by the same judicial code of ethics as other federal judges (they are not) and that their financial records should be more transparent.

SCOTUS Rules in Favor of Public Prayer
Michigan affirmative action ban upheld

There can be quibbles with how some of the poll questions were asked, but there is little doubt that the results demonstrated that the American people are becoming more disenchanted with the nation's highest Court.

On Sunday, Adam Liptak, the excellent Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, wrote a lengthy story suggesting that the court is more partisan than ever before, reflecting the deep divisions in our political and media world. The tag line for an article on the new poll in Salon was "in an increasingly divided country, it seems that everyone can agree that they hate the Supreme Court." And the Huffington Post concluded that "wide majorities are losing faith in the Roberts Supreme Court."

This new poll confirms what I have been arguing, including on this website, for a long time.

There are (at least) two fundamental changes that we need to make to the Supreme Court of the United States. The first is easy and should be non-controversial. The American people have a right to see on their televisions, tablets and smartphones the oral arguments and decision announcements of the Supreme Court.

More than half of state supreme courts, and the Supreme Courts of Canada and the United Kingdom, televise their proceedings with great success, and there are simply no persuasive arguments that the most powerful court in the world shouldn't do the same. The American people feel that the justices are hiding from them, and that cannot do anything but damage the confidence we have in the justices.

The second change is much harder but even more important. Here's a simple rule that I think applies to all democracies: No governmental official who wields great power should hold their office for life. Period.

The original idea was that the justices would be appointed at a relatively old age and serve for a few years. That idea is not just quaint but antiquated. Justices John Paul Stevens and William Brennan both served for more than 30 years, and Justice Elena Kagan, who was 50 when appointed, may well serve for 40 more years.

No human being can be expected to perform their job well when they know they have such great power and can never be fired. Additionally, numerous justices such as William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall served past the time of competence.

Moreover, it is just crazy that presidents who serve the same number of years appoint fewer or greater justices based on either the randomness of illness and death or even politically timed judicial retirements. For example, President George W. Bush drastically changed the balance on the court by appointing Justice Samuel Alito, a staunch conservative, to replace the more moderate Sandra Day O'Connor, while President Carter didn't have the opportunity to nominate even a single justice during his four years as president.

We need a constitutional amendment giving the justices fixed terms and a salary for life. This type of system provides much-needed judicial independence without the downsides of life tenure.

As far as hoping the justices will decide cases under the law without regard to their personal value preferences, no poll can provide a solution to that problem which will be with us for as long as the justices exercise judicial review. But at least we can make them use that power more transparently for all the world to see and limit the time that each individual justice wields such extraordinary authority.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT