U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned on Tuesday that the Court should exercise great “caution” when considering overruling lower court decisions — particularly well-established or landmark cases.
Without explicitly mentioning the June 24 Court decision to overturn Roe V. Wade, Sotomayor noted that overriding rulings risks undermining America’s faith in the legal system.
Sotomayor argued that Americans “rely on the stability of the law in believing and having faith that the judicial system is not prone to politics.”
Sotomayor opposed the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and made headlines in December 2021 when she rejected the idea that “a fetus that has the ability to move and react to pain is a human life that should be protected from abortion.”
Justice Elena Kagan agreed with Sotomayor’s statement, saying that the “Supreme Court has brought its legitimacy into question by way of the recent landmark opinions … and create legitimacy problems for themselves when they … stray into places that look like politics.”
Speaking of the Court’s 6-3 Roe. v. Wade decision and the danger of overturning precedent law, University of Texas School of Law professor Steve Vladeck said, “the ‘worst part’ about the court’s 6-3 conservative majority, which is also poised to unwind years of affirmative action precedent and recently bolstered Second Amendment rights, is that they reject any notion their decisions coincide with desired political agendas.”
During a Wednesday virtual panel hosted by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Vladeck said: “The public perception that all of these 6-3 and 5-4 rulings just happen to break down the same ways that tend to favor Republicans or Democrats — even if there are principles behind those decisions, it doesn’t look good.”
Confidence in the Court is waning. According to a September Gallup poll, just 47% of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the judicial branch — down 20 percentage points from two years ago.
In July, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) sought to bolster public confidence in the Court by introducing a bill that would limit future Supreme Court justices to an 18-year term and presidents to recommend a maximum of two justices per presidential term. No action has yet been taken on the bill.
When speaking at a Harvard Institute of Politics event in October, recently retired Justice Stephen Breyer suggested he would be open to seeing term limits for Supreme Court justices. He qualified his statement by saying:
“It would have to be a very long term. You don’t want someone in that job to be thinking about, ‘What is my next job?’ But if you had a long, definite term, like most countries have some kind of definite term, it would be fine.”
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