WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court justices might have to hire a slick public relations firm to refurbish their image after the disastrous decision to hand the presidency to George W. Bush.
The court, always on a higher plane than any other institution in the U.S. government, has fallen from its pedestal, and the justices must be wondering what they can do to change that. It must come as a surprise to the court that it no longer is revered or viewed as above politics.
For most Americans and scores of law professors, the court was always above reproach, even when commentators disagreed with its decisions. But now the court has fallen into disrepute because of its intervention in last year's presidential election.
The 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore will stand in history not only as the first time that the court has elected a president but also for the dramatic flip-flop of the conservative justices who overcame their alleged devotion to states' rights and overruled the Florida Supreme Court.
More recently, the reputed conservatives returned to embrace the doctrine of states rights when they ruled that aggrieved state employees cannot use the federal Americans with Disabilities Act to sue their states for damages. This time, the conservative justices voted 5-4 to endorse states rights, again.
It looks like the conservatives are dedicated to states rights only when they like the outcome.
Justice Sandra O'Connor, who had a bout with breast cancer, has wanted to retire for some time. But friends say she has been expressing concern over her legacy in the aftermath of the Florida election decision. She should be concerned.
Against this background, the justices have launched a public relations campaign by fanning out to college campuses and law schools and other forums to put the best spin on their controversial decision.
According to Linda Greenhouse, The New York Times court reporter, the justices "have been reaching out to reassure the public -- and perhaps each other -- that all is well at the court despite the bitter divisions revealed by the 5 to 4 vote in Bush v. Gore."
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That is a dramatic switch for a group of cloistered jurists who traditionally speak only through their written opinions in cases before the court.
Justice Antonin Scalia sought to cool down the legal adversarial relationship when he recently told law students in San Diego that "if you can't disagree without hating each other, you better find another profession than the law."
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, another one of the five conservatives, has insisted that politics had nothing to do with his decision. Ditto for Justice Clarence Thomas.
The most memorable gem from the court's decision was the dissenting opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens who said the majority opinion "can only lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land."
"Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election," he added, "the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the law."
As an interesting sidelight, only Justice Stephen Breyer attended Bush's address to Congress this week. Court officials were quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying the Florida decision had nothing to do with the boycott. The newspaper said that Scalia and Stevens think the event has become "too partisan."
Let's drop any illusions that we may have had about the U.S. Supreme Court. We probably asked too much of the justices when we expected them to rise above their personal preferences.
Of course, it wasn't always like this. Think of the courage of the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren when the justices broke the racial segregation barriers in schools and public facilities. Those justices were determined to create a more just society, and they did.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.