(Bloomberg) — U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said he is concerned that criticism of the Supreme Court over controversial rulings has turned into attacks on its legitimacy as an institution.
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Speaking publicly for the first time since the court struck down the constitutional right to abortion, Roberts said criticism of the rulings is “entirely appropriate” but that the court’s role doesn’t change because people disagree with its rulings.
“People can say what they want,” he said late Friday at a conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., where lawyers and judges gathered to discuss legal developments. But “just because people disagree with an opinion is no basis for questioning the legitimacy of the court.”
In May, the release of a leaked draft decision by the court’s majority to overturn Roe v. Wade sparked nationwide protests, with some activists marching outside the homes of Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh and prompting authorities to step up the measures security measures, such as installing barricades around the courthouse in the Capitol. More protests followed after the court’s ruling on June 24.
Roberts, 67, said Friday that it was “devastating” to drive to the Supreme Court and see those barricades.
“The barricades are down and when we go to the bench on the first Monday in October at 10am, the public will be there to watch us,” he said.
In his brief remarks, the chief justice made no specific reference to the abortion ruling, which has caused political and legal chaos in its wake as state lawmakers rushed to pass legislation aimed at creating the strictest restrictions on abortion or in securing the correct ones.
“If the court doesn’t retain its legitimate function of interpreting the Constitution, I’m not sure who would take up that mantle,” he said. “You don’t want the political branches saying you want the law to be. And you don’t want public opinion to be the guide to the appropriate decision.”
Roberts, who was appointed to his seat in 2005 by then-President George W. Bush, is trying to lead a court that was transformed by three conservative appointees of former President Donald Trump: Justices Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett and Cavanaugh.
While he voted with five other Republican-appointed justices in favor of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, Roberts said he would have left the abortion core in place. He wrote a separate opinion calling the decision overturning Roe, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, “a severe jolt to the legal system.”
The Chief Stands Alone: Roberts, Roe and a Divided Supreme Court
A national poll conducted by Marquette University School of Law following the historic Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization found that public approval of the court has fallen to 38 percent, compared to 60 percent about a year earlier.
In what was a transformative term for the court, the justices also issued landmark rulings that expanded gun rights and limited the power of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Michael McConnell, a former appeals court judge who teaches at Stanford Law School, said he was surprised that the justices who interviewed Roberts at Friday’s event did not ask him about the leaked draft opinion, but he was not surprised by the absence of questions about the his comment on the legitimacy of the court.
Such forums are usually “painless,” McConnell said. “The old-fashioned, long-held view is that opinions speak for themselves” and judges don’t speak for them.
(Updates with details of the Dobbs vote in paragraph 10.)
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