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Are people losing confidence in the Supreme Court?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The unprecedented leak of a draft opinion on abortion rights from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is just one of the latest headlines involving the nation's highest court. Back in March, there were reports that Justice Clarence Thomas' wife, Ginni Thomas, urged an aide to former President Donald Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Joining us to discuss how this could be affecting public confidence in the court is reporter Lawrence Hurley. He covers the Supreme Court for Reuters. Lawrence, you reported recently, the Supreme Court has cultivated a reputation as a so-called grown-up branch of government. Is that possibly changing?

LAWRENCE HURLEY: Yeah, that's one of the questions that people are now talking about because the Supreme Court's whole reputation and its sort of notion of itself is that it's sort of above the fray in Washington. And that's important because people need to take its decisions as being, you know, carefully reasoned and not based on politics, the way that decisions are that come out of the White House or Congress. And so if the court starts to sort of lose some of that reputation, that could be bad for its reputation and people's willingness to follow its rulings across the country. So...

MARTINEZ: Yeah, and I've always thought, with the Supreme Court, Lawrence, that they may not agree all the time, but they're generally friendly with each other and that they're, you know, trying to come up with fair decisions.

HURLEY: Yeah. And that's an image they've carefully cultivated. Whenever the justices appear in public, they always talk about how, you know, we disagree on some of the rulings, but we all are friends with each other and we get along with each other. But that sort of image has been undercut a little bit, especially the recent kind of flap that went on about wearing masks in the courtroom, where Justice Neil Gorsuch was in the courtroom - the only justice not to wear a mask in a hearing and - during the omicron outbreak of COVID-19. And that led to some news stories saying that, you know, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has diabetes, was, you know, somehow concerned about that. And that's why she didn't appear on the bench. And the court denied that. But it sort of showed a sort of - you know, a break in their sense of - that everyone gets along.

MARTINEZ: And I remember being surprised when Scalia and Ginsburg said they were friends. I just didn't...

HURLEY: Right.

MARTINEZ: ...That didn't seem like it would match. But, you know, that's - that was me.

Now, recently, Chief Justice John Roberts has had to put out public statements - the most recent about Alito's leaked draft opinion. You've been covering the Supreme Court since 2008, Lawrence. How unusual is that?

HURLEY: Yeah, it's very - I mean, the leak itself, obviously, is extremely unusual. But for the chief justice to come out and actually, you know, acknowledge that the draft was an authentic document, to then have to say that it wasn't a final decision of the court and not a final work product and that the court was investigating the leak - that's nothing I've ever seen before. You know, at times, he has had to issue statements on things. But, you know, it seems to be coming more and more frequent. And for the court that, you know, likes to sort of, you know, keep to itself and just kind of issue these rulings from on high, it's these statements and the leaks and things like this that are sort of bringing them back down to earth, which is, I think, something they're not really comfortable with.

MARTINEZ: Bringing them back to earth, but do you think the court's reputation is in danger? I mean, just how serious are these recent headlines involving the Supreme Court?

MARTINEZ: No, I mean, that's heavily in dispute - right? - because the Republicans who have a vested interest in defending the court because it has a conservative majority are sort of blaming left-wing activists and probably the media, as well, for fomenting this idea that the court's, you know, reputation is in danger because they think that's just politics. It's because people on the left don't like the rulings that are coming out of the court, and that's why they're attacking the court. But, you know, there's people, I think, on both sides who are a little concerned about the court being drawn into this kind of - into the mud, as it were, of Washington because the more the court seems like it's a bit more like the other branches of government, the more it seems like it's a political branch and not a judicial branch.

MARTINEZ: So on that - because there's been discussion, particularly on the left, about whether the court is advancing minority rule in this country - on abortion, polling shows most Americans support access of some kind. So what you think it means for the country when the Supreme Court is able to advance new law and policy that maybe might be out of step with the majority of the country?

HURLEY: Well, one problem with the Supreme Court right now is that, you know, Congress doesn't do much, right? Congress doesn't pass many laws. The White House is also limited in what it can do. And so, you know, the Supreme Court is sort of in this position where it's almost the most powerful branch of government. And, you know, people will say that means it can make policy decisions that it shouldn't be.

MARTINEZ: Lawrence Hurley covers the Supreme Court for Reuters. Lawrence, thanks a lot.

HURLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.