The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trust in Supreme Court falters after Roe decision

For abortion rights supporters, the sudden striking down of what was long considered settled law is the latest evidence of a broken democratic system

Abortion rights supporter Mary Wiley sits as protesters gather outside the federal courthouse in Houston after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization on June 24. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)

PHOENIX — For most of her life, Marshelle Barwise viewed the U.S. Supreme Court as soberly dedicated to protecting the rights of all Americans, especially those who aren’t White men.

Then the court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Although Barwise personally opposes abortion, she disagreed with the rolling back of the nationwide right to an abortion and saw it as yet another example of how American democracy is broken.

“There’s so much divisiveness even within our own government, how can we trust it? Everything is so divisive,” said Barwise, 37, a new mom who works in financial sales and considers herself politically independent.

For years, she has dutifully voted, believing in a democratic system that’s supposed to represent everyone. Yet, she said, it seems as if a powerful few are making decisions that don’t match what a majority wants — or are failing to take any action at all.

“We have all gone through where we’ve heard people say all the right things, and then they get in a position of power, and they do everything opposite — or a segment, a small portion, just enough to appease or hopefully get reelected,” she said.

Your questions about the end of Roe, answered

With Congress gridlocked and presidents facing challenges when they act on their own, the Supreme Court — historically the most apolitical branch of government — has seemingly become the one most capable of quickly reshaping society.

Across the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, many people who oppose the abortion decision said they didn’t expect Roe to fall because it had been in place for nearly five decades and, while controversial, had woven itself into American society. It was considered settled law, so its sudden demise was unsettling for many — and made them worry about what could follow.

The ruling catapults abortion into a top issue in all three states, where races are underway for governor and U.S. Senate.

Although the court is supposed to focus on legal reasoning, not public opinion, the June 24 ruling does not match the views of most Americans. Fifty-six percent of adults opposed overturning Roe, according to a recent Marist College poll conducted with NPR and PBS NewsHour after the court issued its decision. Of those polled, 57 percent said they think the court’s decision was mostly based on politics, while 36 percent said they considered it mostly based on the law.

“They’re supposed to be unbiased. They’re supposed to look at the law as it is, instead of what political interests might have in mind,” said Timothy Oxley Jr., 31, a statistical programming analyst from Columbia, S.C., who was visiting Atlanta this past week. “They’re there to work for the people, not their own interests. And I feel like that’s what they’re doing more than anything these days.”

One year ago, 60 percent of adults approved of the job the Supreme Court was doing, according to a survey by Marquette University Law School. There was little difference between the views of Republicans and Democrats.

By May — soon after a draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion leaked — approval of the court had dropped by 16 points, to 44 percent, according to a follow-up survey by Marquette. That poll showed a dramatic partisan split, with 71 percent of Republicans approving but 28 percent of Democrats doing the same.

The abortion ruling came amid a string of high-profile decisions, including ones expanding gun rights and curtailing the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to curb carbon emissions. On Thursday, the court agreed to consider whether state lawmakers have the sole authority to determine how federal elections are run and where congressional district lines go.

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Many of the recent rulings issued — but especially the overturning of Roe — elated conservatives and enraged liberals, sparking protests and condemnation from lawmakers, celebrities, corporations and civic groups who said they worried the court was becoming another political branch of government. After the court spent decades expanding the rights of many Americans, including by allowing same-sex marriage and protecting voting rights, many were stunned to see a right rolled back.

“It’s just going to be really interesting to see what happens in terms of people’s respect for the Supreme Court going forward. I’ve always just held it in such reverence and don’t at this point,” said Emily Moore, a school speech pathologist from Middleton, Wis., who was outraged by the abortion decision.

Wisconsin clinics have stopped offering abortions because of an 1849 law that bars abortions unless the life of the woman is at stake. Gov. Tony Evers (D) has asked a court to invalidate that law. Moore, 59, said she is glad Democrats are fighting these restrictions, but she is pessimistic about the possibility for change in her state.

Wisconsin clinics have stopped offering abortions because of an 1849 law

“I vote every election, and I’m going to keep voting and keep trying,” she said. “I know that it might not make a difference, given how things are gerrymandered, but Democrats win statewide elections in Wisconsin, so every vote counts.”

While many liberals see the decision as one that tramples on a long-established right, many abortion opponents see it as one that has corrected a disastrous legal error.

Gary Schmitz, who has long gathered with other abortion opponents outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Madison, Wis., said he didn’t consider the latest decision to be any more political than Roe.

“That was political, too, if what we got now is political,” he said.

One of his compatriots, Julia Haag, said she saw the recent abortion decision much as Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that overturned the 1896 ruling that allowed racial segregation in schools and other public places.

“They’ve gone back when they’ve made mistakes and righted it,” she said. “They needed to right this.”

Lailah Shima of Madison, Wis., said the court has been growing more political for decades, but the problem has worsened in recent years. She was frustrated in 2016 when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to hold a hearing for President Barack Obama’s nominee to the court, Merrick Garland. She was further galled when McConnell put President Donald Trump’s three nominees on fast tracks.

“That was just like a blatant assault on democracy,” she said. “It was just ridiculous, right? It’s horrifying how they can pretend to be democratic.”

Jalissa Johnson, an Atlanta entrepreneur, said the abortion decision and one released Thursday that some say undermines Miranda rights concerned her as a Black woman. While Black Americans have made progress over the last century, she said, many still feel unrepresented by their government.

“We still are not equal,” she said. “And because that was not the agenda of our nation, in any sense, in this beginning. The purpose was to elevate White Americans or the White majority. So, fighting for equality is a … problem that we have today.”

Johnson said that she is “morally not a believer in abortion,” but she does “believe in freedom and the right to choose.” In Georgia, Republicans are trying to enforce a ban on abortions after about six weeks.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) just signed into law a ban on abortions after 15 weeks, and Republicans may try to enact other restrictions. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) has said a law from the mid-1800s that makes it a crime to provide abortions could be applied.

“I feel like a lot of it goes back to race in the olden days, like they kind of want to go back to the 1900s where women were in the kitchen,” said Kacie Mearse, 20, a Democrat who was spending time with a cousin in Glendale, Ariz., the same afternoon that Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.

Mearse doesn’t typically closely follow the court’s work but paid attention to the abortion ruling, which she views as a rollback of her rights. She doesn’t trust the court and thinks many justices prioritize their own political and religious beliefs over the broader American public.

“Everyone should be treated the same and have the same rights,” she said.

She added, “They don’t really care about me. They just care about themselves.”

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She felt more hopeful about the direction of the country in 2020, when she voted for Joe Biden for president and Mark Kelly for U.S. Senate. Nearly two years later, she feels as underrepresented as ever in Congress, an institution that feels far away and disconnected from her everyday life as a middle-school teacher.

She wishes lawmakers spent more time expanding rights for all Americans.

“Everyone is equal, and I feel like some people in the Congress and the government try to make some races and genders above everybody else,” she said.

Alfredo Gutiérrez, a former Democratic state Senate majority leader in Arizona, has fought for civil rights, most recently on behalf of undocumented immigrants, nearly all his 77 years.

It’s a cause that has taken him from the fruit fields of southern Arizona alongside Cesar Chavez in the late 1960s to the streets to help persuade voters to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday in the early 1990s.

Along the way, Gutiérrez revered the Supreme Court for its tradition of expanding rights even as his admiration gave way to cynicism about the confirmation process.

Now, after the abortion ruling, he sees the court as a political instrument.

“At every step along the way, it has been a step of inclusion, it has been a step of bringing people into the circle to determine the future of this country,” he said. “And it has been a step of extending rights … to make equality the most common thread of our being as a country. And that’s why the court has, until now, remained the most admired, the most respected entity in all of governance in this country. And that’s what they destroyed.”

Gutiérrez worries about what the ruling could mean for the future of same-sex marriage, contraceptives and guns. He has lost hope that Congress can or will do anything to help.

His faith in the Democratic Party and its leaders has also worn away over time, deepening after Obama’s promise on comprehensive immigration reform was never fulfilled. After spending decades registering young people to vote, he stopped doing so during the 2020 election.

“I don’t believe in them anymore,” he said. “It’s cumulative — it’s got to hit you upside the head more than once before you conclude that there’s just no point in doing this.”

Marley reported from Madison, Wis., and Brown reported from Atlanta. Scott Clement contributed to this report.