Supreme Court Justices Reportedly Not Getting Along

( Justices of the Supreme Court frequently lose their cool with attorneys who present them with cases. But six months after Roe v. Wade was reversed by the Court, the justices displayed indications of irritability and annoyance with one another, sometimes even to the point of rudeness. The Court in the past has experienced acrimony, such as the hatred between four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s justices.

Justices with radically divergent legal opinions have been dinner party pals, skeet shooting buddies, and opera partners. During oral arguments, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer, Ketanji Brown Jackson’s predecessor and ideological rivals but good friends, would whisper and make jokes. The brash conservative Antonin Scalia amused his liberal and conservative colleagues with his one-liners and digs. Thomas would extend his arm to help Ruth Bader Ginsburg get down from the bench as she became more feeble in her final year. The justices’ opinions have always been fueled by malice, but only on paper. On the bench, decorum ruled.

No longer. Since 2013, Steven Mazie has listened to Supreme Court oral arguments. As The Economist’s SCOTUS correspondent, he has observed hearings in some of the most contentious cases of the past ten years, including a Church-state controversy in 2013, debates over the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage in 2015, debates over affirmative action in 2016 and 2020, labor unions in 2018, voting rights in 2018, and abortion in 2023. The atmosphere in the justices’ secret conference room, where cases are discussed following hearings, is only known to them. But what he has observed this term in the courtroom on the full show is a clear break from the collegiality of earlier times.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the June decision that overruled Roe, was unquestionably the tipping point. The conservative majority on the Court has recently overturned many long-standing rulings. However, the Court was divided—and not amicably—in its decision to repeal 50 years of abortion rights. In Dobbs, the minority did not disagree “respectfully.” The three justices disagreed instead, expressing “sorrow” for the American women and “for this Court.”

Discord brought on by the Dobbs judgment was evident during the summer in remarks made by Elena Kagan, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts argued that merely disagreeing with a decision “is not a foundation for doubting the legitimacy of the Court” in response to claims that the Court was jeopardizing its authority. After two weeks, Kagan appeared to respond to her colleague, claiming that Americans would eventually lose faith in a court that seemed to be “an extension of the political process.” Then, a few days before the 2022–2023 term, Alito declared that claims that the Supreme Court is “becoming an illegitimate institution” go beyond the bounds of decency and cross “an important line.”

The justices don’t seem to be getting along.