The Supreme Court's New Term: Dahlia Lithwick

Next week the Supreme Court will begin its 2009 term, secure in the knowledge that it remains completely misunderstood by the American public. A Gallup poll conducted in September showed the court's current approval rating—61 percent—to be higher than it's been in a decade. (Last year that number was 50 percent.) This fall, 50 percent of Americans believe the court is not too liberal or too conservative; that's up from 43 percent last year. The number of Americans who believe the court is too conservative has dropped from 30 to 19 percent.

All this public admiration for the court's moderation came the same week the court was hearing a campaign-finance-reform case that may dismantle a longstanding system of campaign-finance restrictions. The issue in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission is not limited to the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law. The reason court watchers got so worked up about this case is that it squarely tests Chief Justice John Roberts's stated commitments to preserving precedent, deferring to the elected branches, and issuing narrow rulings instead of sweeping ones. Oral arguments revealed that the court's five conservatives feel nothing but contempt for campaign-finance regulations that demonize corporations, restrict core political speech, and—to quote the chief justice—"put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats."

But that's where the public confusion kicks in. In last term's cases on voting rights, reverse discrimination, and a school strip search, the court opted for narrow, case-specific rulings rather than the sweeping ones foreshadowed by dramatic oral arguments. All this hardly means the 2008 term was a triumph for liberals at the high court. On balance, the term continued a clear trend in which big business always prevails, environmentalists are always buried, female and elderly workers go unprotected, death-row inmates get the needle, and criminal defendants are shown the door. So how to explain these new poll numbers showing that 49 percent of Republicans believe the Roberts Court is too liberal and 59 percent of Democrats believe the court is "about right"?

In part, the numbers reflect a focus on the wrong data; we continue to believe in the court we see on TV. Thus, the highly charged confirmation hearings of Justice Sonia Sotomayor this summer contributed to the idea that the court was swinging leftward, even though it's clear that her substitution for Justice David Souter will do nothing to alter the balance of the court (indeed, she is generally expected to move the court to the right in some areas of criminal law). Similarly, the refusal of the court to go all the way in the big-banner civil-rights cases last year leads to the broad perception that the court is quite liberal.

To be sure, progressives who claim that the court's eventual ruling in September's campaign-finance fracas will conclusively reveal the heart of darkness that lurks inside the Roberts Court are also overstating their case. It's true that the Roberts Court is a fundamentally conservative creature and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. But as we learned yet again last term, it's also a court that is deeply aware of, even responsive to, public opinion. This is a court willing to reverse the Warren revolution with a tablespoon instead of a wrecking ball, and that may be too nuanced an approach to be captured in public-opinion polls.

The term that opens next week promises to provide another fistful of cases that will slowly deepen our understanding of the Roberts Court. Among them: yet another challenge to a cross on government property (raising questions about who has standing to be offended by religious symbols); a dispute over the constitutionality of a federal statute criminalizing depictions of animal cruelty; questions about whether juveniles may be sentenced to life without parole; another hot eminent-domain case; and maybe even a quarrel over whether the name "Washington Redskins" is offensive. If the tea leaves are correct, we may also see another confirmation hearing next summer.

As a generation raised on a constant diet of reality television and the inevitable "big reveal," we will continue to look to the high drama of oral argument and the staged fireworks of judicial-confirmation hearings for our views about the Supreme Court. What really happens at the high court in the coming years will continue to occur by the tablespoon—even if we are too busy with imagined wrecking balls to see it.