Linda Greenhouse: How The Supreme Court Got to Where it Is


 We are in Mexico, San Miguel de Allende, where I am serving as a “Minister-in-Residence” for the Community Church of SMA, an English-speaking congregation, made up largely of ex-pats from the U.S. as well as Canada. Does being here mean that we have escaped the acrimonious world of U.S. politics? Not entirely.

Last evening we went to a talk by Linda Greenhouse, journalist and author, longtime reporter who covered the U.S. Supreme Court for decades for The New York Times. A Pulitzer Prize winner. Greenhouse explored why the Court has lost trust and approval in the country, which is a fairly recent development. She noted that many predicted the Court’s status would be irreparably damaged by its decision in the 2000 Bush v. Gore presidential election. Didn’t happen. Only now does SCOTUS’s “approval rating” hover in the 40% or below area.

The audience for her talk was 300 to 400 mostly American ex-pats (as one would expect given the topic), mostly older and largely, but not exclusively, white. Probably a pretty affluent crowd as well. And to judge from applause, laughs and groans the audience was heavily liberal to left-leaning.

Before getting into her formal talk Greenhouse briefly addressed what she called “the elephant in the room,” i.e. the Court’s 9-0 decision last week that states may not bar Donald Trump from the 2024 ballot. The immediate response of the audience suggested they were upset by this decision and that they expected Greenhouse to be, too. If I understood her correctly, she wasn’t. She agreed with the decision, then went on to comment briefly on two things.

She said that she found the apoplectic reaction in response to the court’s action on the left “surprising.” While acknowledging that she herself leans left, she said didn’t get the vitriol from that quarter. Next, she brought up Amy Coney Barrett — eliciting groans from crowd. But Greenhouse had complimentary words about ACB’s solo brief on the case in which ACB faulted both the conservative majority and liberal minority of the court for their stridency. Given the current climate, Justice Barrett found this animus to be unnecessary and unfortunate. Greenhouse agreed. So, these off-the-cuff comments threw a bit of a curve ball to her audience.

In her formal talk, Greenhouse traced the evolution of the court to its present conservative “agenda,” and expressed apprehension over multiple aspects of that, particularly the Dobbs decision overturning Roe. She noted that with the three Trump appointees, the Roberts Court had succeeded in accomplishing the five-pronged conservative agenda, for which the groundwork had been laid starting in 1980. She noted that while the right worked steadily and tenaciously toward their goals, the Democratic Party had mostly been asleep at the switch, failing to see what was going on and to respond in any effective measure.

She did repeatedly say that the Court was now out of touch with “the public.” I wondered about that usage. I doubt that we can use the definite article and speak of “the American public” today. There are multiple publics, or so it seems to me. Greenhouse’s imagined “public” may be closer to her San Miguel audience — educated, older, liberal and white. An “elite” I guess. I wondered if that crowd, which is my demographic too, has also been somewhat “asleep at the switch” when it comes to other slices of the country and their shifting politics?

When the talk ended and we moved into Q and A, unexpected fireworks began. The first person at the microphone was a younger American, one of the few in the room not grey-haired. She came loaded for bear. Maybe she was a plant? I suspect Greenhouse has seen her type before.

As often happens in such Q and A sessions (regardless of whether the person asking their question is friendly or hostile), people have a hard time asking an actual question. They need to establish their cred, to make their own point (or two) and then and only then will they maybe get around to a question which is often something like “don’t you agree?” “Or would you comment on what I just said?” Not very edifying. How about a program insert on “how to ask a question”?

First-to-mic did some of all that, with a discernibly hostile tone. That gave rise to evident consternation in the general audience followed by growing alarm. Mic-first seemed to be asking why Americans don’t trust the government (she had stats), which morphed into “why don’t Americans trust the ‘legacy media’ (more stats), which you (Ms. Greenhouse) represent, even embody?” People gasped, grumbled, and looked for the hook. When the exit eventually came the woman took the occasion to say, more than once, “Shame on you,” to both Greenhouse and to the audience as she exited the ballroom.

Had she simply asked her question, whether it was, “why don’t Americans trust the government?” or “why don’t Americans trust the mainstream media?” and do so without the hostile vibe, that might have been worthwhile. But it didn’t happen that way.

So here too in our San Miguel enclave, the tribalism and talking in silos, happens. Although, as noted, Greenhouse herself pushed back on that a bit in her opening comments, which I appreciated. It’s so easy to pick our side, congratulate ourselves for being on the right side, and cast aspersions on the other side. That we haven’t escaped by coming here.

Well, maybe we have escaped it a little. The congregation I serve is politically mixed (D’s and R’s, and probably quite a few I’s). It is also theologically diverse. Most are mainline Protestant of one flavor or another, but with some evangelicals and a healthy contingent of former Catholics.

Visiting clergy are asked to avoid overt political commentary/partisanship and to focus on the “central convictions” of the Christian faith. I’m good with that. Given the general polarization and tribalization of the U.S., and the way many churches have now conformed themselves to those divides, I appreciate the attempt of this congregation to keep first things first and to put their Christian identity ahead of their political ones.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Good morning, Anthony,
    I am the “First-to-mic” to whom you referred. First, I was not a plant; I am an American citizen who cares about the truth. The low level of trust in the Supreme Court is not a recent development; it has been about this low since 2011. Here is the study:,a%2042%25%20reading%20in%202005 I did not begin in a hostile manner.
    Second, I posed my question very clearly, not in the muddled manner you claim. Third, I did not exit the room after saying “Shame on you.” I stayed until the end of the Q&A, and then confronted the woman who physically accosted me, grabbing me with her fist twice. You left that out. I had written to Greenhouse prior to the lecture to ask her to address the appalling low levels of support for institutions like the federal government and legacy media, which are lower even than that of the Supreme Court. I used the same sources Greenhouse did. Do try to be somewhat factual in your opinion piece, and could you please edit your headline? It’s ridiculous to have it say “Who the Supreme Court Got to Where it Is” when you mean “How the Supreme Court Got to Where it Is.” – Heather Chase

    • I thank you for your comment. It seems to me that your post does not respect the opinion of Mr. Robinson, although you expect us — the readers of this blog — to respect yours. Nobody has to like his post or agree with it, but respect is a good beginning point.

    • Wow, good to hear from you Heather. FYI writers/ columnists don’t write their headline. And re your exit. I was in the far opposite corner of the ballroom so didn’t have a good visual. Apologies. If you’re still in San Miguel and would like to get together, let’s do it.

  2. How much should I respect someone calling me “a plant,” and misrepresenting what happened Tuesday night? Mr. Robinson disrespected the truth, and my comment is factual. My remark about the misspelled title is snarky; I’ll give you that, but isn’t it snarky to call an earnest questioner “a plant”? It seems to me turnabout is fair play. If you reread his piece, I think you might note that his tone is not respectful of the crowd in general or of me. He sounds arrogant and condescending, and he is misinformed about several points, so I believe I have the right to present a strong rebuttal. I don’t see how correcting untruths is disrespectful.

  3. Flip Wilson preached at The Church of What’s Happening Now. This all sounds pretty darn close to Reverend Wilson.

  4. Regardless of the opinions derived from San Miquel, the issue remains: Do you want state’s attorneys-general (or state legislatures) to decide who is allowed on the ballot? My dissent was pilloried by my progressive friends who, apparently, are unable to imagine themselves with their favored candidates excised from the ballot.

    • The Colorado court examined the evidence and decided that Trump is an insurrectionist. The Colorado court then applied the 14th Amendment: Trump does not qualify for the U.S. presidency.
      THAT is the issue that remains, not the red herring you cite.
      The Supreme Court has exactly one job: to see to it that the Constitution has been applied correctly to the case at hand. They did nothing of the sort. They ignored the case and they ignored the law. They simply blew off the Constitution. A Supreme Court decision against Trump could have applied nationally, no AG’s required.
      Does the court’s failure rhyme with rise of National Socialism? Yea, it does.


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