Have the Supremes ever been swayed?

I have heard of people and groups demonstrating for one side or another in a Supreme Court ruling (I can’t give an example, so maybe this whole premise is flawed), but has there ever been a case where the Court appeared to have been swayed by public opinion? Obviously the law cannot be held subject to the whims of public opinion, but was there ever a case where some of the justices made rulings that appeared contrary to their values or previous rulings and where public opinion was the only reasonable explanation for the apparent change of heart?

Obviously, I’m asking for speculation. Maybe I should have posted this in MPSIMS.

Yes,and I thought you meant Diana Ross was getting shaky! :slight_smile:

That was post 777,Hi Jeffery!

Supreme Court justices are nominated for life, so they shouldn’t have to care one bit about public opinion. This was specifically set up to prevent the kind of blatant pandering that goes on in localities where the judges are elected. About the only thing a justice has to worry about is getting impeached for misconduct, which AFAIK has never happened. That said, justices might take public opinion into account, and the rulings on certain subjects, like abortion, are certainly based more on politics than on legal, logical, or moral bases. (Do you know that it’s the only medical procedure that a minor can get without the consent or knowledge of her parents?) So I’m sure that, to a certain extent, public opinion factors in, but if the justices want to make a constitutionally sound but wildly unpopular pronouncement, there’s nothing to stop them.

“I had a feeling that in Hell there would be mushrooms.” -The Secret of Monkey Island

Offhand, the only generally-accepted outside influence on the Supreme Court that i can recall was FDR’s court-packing threat. (The “switch in time that saved nine.”)

In the early days of the New Deal, the court struck down many of FDR’s programs. FDR threatened to increase the size of the court beyond nine members to get the votes that he needed. Miraculously, the next New Deal program to come before the court was upheld.

This may not be public opinion in the sense that you mean, but it was public support for FDR that put him in a position to make the threat.

Proving that a Supreme Court Justice ruled a certain way based on public pressure would be darned difficult. Even if one was swayed by public outcry, I doubt s/he would ever admit to it!

But perhaps you can more easily see some signs of influence in what cases they decide to hear. Remember, the Supreme Court is under no obligation to hear any case, and may turn one down (deny cert), for any - or no - reason whatsoever.

An example that comes readily to mind is Roe v. Wade: Under normal judicial proceedings, the case would never have been heard. The justices won’t hear a case that is moot (where the issue is no longer in contention), and that was certainly the case with abortion. By the time a woman’s case got around to being heard by the court, the original contention (does she have a right to abort a fetus) was years gone by. Ergo, entirely moot.

If I recall correctly, the court agreed to an extremely expedited oral argument schedule, saying the issue “eluded judicial oversight, yet was capable of repetition.” In other words, they took the case because they wanted to, because public pressure was so high to get the issue definitively settled.

~ Complacency is far more dangerous than outrage ~

“The Supreme Court reads the election returns.”

Not my line, but I can’t remember who said it right now. Public opinion probably was a factor in the Nixon tapes decision. Supposedly there was intense internal bickering and lobbying, but in the end, the justices decided that it was absolutely necessary to have a unanimous verdict.

The actual line is: “The Supreme Court follows the iliction returns” and it’s from the exquisitely brilliant Mr. Dooley.

Dooley (a supposedly fictional Irish barkeep in Chicago whose words of wisdom were written down by Finlay Peter Dunne) was discussing the Spanish American War. The Supremes had made some ruling in favor of the various U.S. manifest destiny land grabs and quaintly pointed out that justices aren’t exactly 100% neutral. I’d say the situation isn’t quite as blatant as it was back then, but the court’s biases are obvious, though they are all put there by the various presidents who appointed the justices.

“East is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.” – Marx

Read “Sundials” in the new issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction. www.sff.net/people/rothman

The Dred Scott case was kind of in that line. The Supream Court could have stopped with the ruling on the case itself, but they took it to end the Missouri Comp, and declare blacks non citizens period.

McCulloch v. Maryland was an example where the Supreme Court decided to throw its weight behind the concept of a national bank, which Chief Justice Marshall and President Monroe both saw eye-to-eye on.

That decision brought forth the concept of Federal supremacy over State law.

Thanks guys. In hindsight, I remember reading about the rulings over slavery and Uncle Tom Laws in high school and thinking that the decisions seemed pretty capricious, but might not have run counter to the justices’ personal judgement. Roe v Wade does seem like a perfect example of giving the people what they want.

FWIW, My opinion was piqued after reading that the court had scheduled the Massachusetts/Myranmar suit. My gut reaction was something like “My God, Wait until my congressma… oh yeah, it’s a suit.” Sometimes it would help to wake up before reading the newspaper.

I think it’s fair to say that the United States Supreme Court is the least politicized tribunal in the nation. That said, it would be unrealistic to expect that the Justices would never allow some form of “public opinion” to influence their decisions; the Justices are, after all, still human. At the very least, the high court is keenly sensitive about its “public image.” Thus, while the Court is not likely to distract itself from the strict legal merits of a case before them by asking “How popular will our decision be?”, I’m quite convinced that it frequently asks itself, in effect, “How will our decision affect the dignity of the Court?” As suggested in an earlier post, the life-long appointments enjoyed by Supreme Court Justices are thought to promote a desireable measure of “judicial independence.” Many think that the model has played out pretty well–at the Supreme Court level.
But lower federal court judges are also appointed for life, and the consequences life appointments for the quality of justice at that level are, sadly, a good deal more disappointing. While life tenure can liberate a judge from the temptation to “pander” to popular will, it also empowers a judge rule in ways not particularly faithful to the requirements of law. All too frequently, lower federal judges (including intermediate appellate federal judges, who are solely responsible for correcting the errors of federal trial judges) succumb to the latter temptation, and their lack of public accountability is arguably one of the most seriously dysfuntional and disturbing features of the American legal system. Of course, no system designed and run by humans can be perfect. You have to pick your poison: Better to have judges (1) responsive to popular will or (2) empowered to advance their personal agenda?

“intermediate appellate federal judges, who are solely responsible for correcting the errors of federal trial judges”

How can that be? Doesn’t the Supreme Court exist to correct those errors of the trial judges that the intermediate (court of appeals) appellate judges fail to correct, and to correct those errors that the intermediate appellate judges commit themselves in the first instance?

No way. Review in the the United States Supreme Court is virtually entirely discretionary with the Court, and the Court has repeatedly stated that it does not grant review “to correct error.” It only grants review on matters of national importance and/or when necessary to resolve a matter on which the lower federal courts have issued conflicting decisions. Does that mean that, except in extraordinary cases, federal judges are free to err with impunity? Exactly. And they do.

Just the tiniest bit of nit-picking: the issue in Roe v. Wade was not moot precisely because it was “capable of repetition, yet evading review.” Since the gestational period of a baby is nine months, and virtually every case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court takes longer than that to arrive and be decided, no case on abortion rights would ever be reviewable by the Supremes if they focused on the one individual (pregnant) plaintiff or defendant as the yard-stick for mootness – because every case would be moot by the time it got there. So the Supremes did not hear Roe v. Wade in spite of its mootness – they determined that it was not moot.

The only acceptable way that an individual or group (not a party to the case) can try to sway the Court is by asking the Court to allow them to participate as amicus (or amici) curi, or “friend of the court.” With the permission of the Court, amici can file briefs – or, in very rare cases, appear in oral argument – on behalf of individuals or groups not represented in the case who nevertheless have an interest in its outcome. The best example of this that I can think of is the issue of tort reform, which generally garners amici briefs from various organizations such as the American Trial Lawyers Association (very much anti) and the National Chamber of Commerce (very much pro). The Court does consider amicus filings when making decisions in such cases.


Fiat Justitia