Social Media and the Stakes of Supreme Court Appointments

“Even if people don’t like me, they have to vote for me. They have no choice. Even if you can’t stand Donald Trump, you think Donald Trump is the worst, you’re going to vote for me. You know why? Justices of the Supreme Court,” Trump said at a campaign rally last summer. After Justice Scalia’s death left a vacancy on the Supreme Court, President Obama was unable to garner the Congressional support for a replacement. In this rare moment, Trump acknowledged his unpopularity among many traditional Republicans, but was adamant that his potential control over the fate of the Supreme Court would win them over. Hillary Clinton similarly appealed to voters, captioning a photo shared on social media: “I’m with her because the president appoints Supreme Court Justices.”

But the framers of the Constitution certainly did not intend for Supreme Court appointments to be the sole motivation for voting for a presidential candidate. Rather, they hoped that the Supreme Court would serve as an entity separate from partisan politics. However, over the past several decades, the Supreme Court has become increasingly partisan; Senators vote for justices that share their ideology, and the justices themselves vote largely along party lines as well. Many people ascribe the raised stakes of Supreme Court appointments to a general rise in partisanship that has taken place over the past several decades. But there are other factors at play as well, most notably increased technological developments that have made us rethink the very nature of the Supreme Court and our connection to it.

Technological advancement that make the world of politics more tangible and accessible to citizens, namely social media, is one potential factor in the increased contention over Supreme Court appointments. Some studies have found that incidental exposure to news can increase political participation, and social media is a major source of incidental exposure to information. Consequently, scrolling through Facebook and coming across an article about Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch could lead someone to call their Senator to pressure them to vote a certain way.

When people feel more connected to their government, they are more likely to hold their politicians accountable.

Moreover, social media has made it easier for citizens to keep track of their politicians. As of 2014, 16 percent of registered voters followed politicians on some form of social media, and it is likely that that number has grown substantially over the past two years as social media usage has increased. In the past, activity like Supreme Court nominations could exist in a nonpartisan way because most Americans were not paying close attention. However, people no longer need to be political junkies to understand the consequences of a Supreme Court nomination. Now that many more people are aware of what is happening in the federal judiciary, they are more likely to pressure their representatives to oppose the nomination of someone who is at odds with them ideologically, raising the stakes of a nomination.

Not only does social media make it easier to keep up with the Court, it also fosters a stronger personal connection between citizens and justices. More than a third of voters who use social media to keep up with politics report that it makes them feel an increased personal connection to the politicians or political groups they follow. This connection has likely contributed to the increased stakes of Supreme Court appointments, because when people feel more connected to their government, they are more likely to hold their politicians accountable.

Evidence of this stronger personal connection to politicians can be found in the popularity of the blog, Notorious R.B.G. Borrowing from the name of rapper Notorious B.I.G., the blog has turned Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into the latest obsession among millennials. The blog and the book that resulted from it document the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a fun and accessible way through providing both serious accounts of Ginsburg’s legal career and images of RBG-inspired memes and manicures. The successes of the blog and book turned Ginsburg into an unlikely celebrity, increasing everyday America’s engagement with the Supreme Court. But this idolization of a government official can be problematic. The framers definitely did not foresee or suggest a fanatical obsession with someone whose job is to interpret the law. In fact, it is probably best when celebrity culture does not seep into politics (see: celebrity-in-chief Donald Trump). In the case of the Supreme Court, the negative consequences of the rise of the Notorious RBG are clear. The new infatuation with Ginsburg has cultivated a stronger sense of personal connection and interaction with the Supreme Court, which has contributed to the rise of contention surrounding nominations of Supreme Court justices.

These increased stakes of Supreme Court appointments have put pressure on justices to avoid retirement until the president in office is of their same party. In a New York Times article from 2014, Dwight Garner writes that Scalia “certainly won’t willingly retire while Barack Obama is in office, but if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2016, he may not wish to hang on.” Perhaps Scalia would have retired before his death if there was not so much pressure to ensure that he would have been replaced by a justice of his same party ideology. There is not only pressure to avoid retirement based on the president’s party, but also based on the partisan makeup of Congress. In response to calls that Ruth Bader Ginsburg should retire while President Obama was in office, Ginsburg asked, “‘And who do you think Obama could have nominated and got confirmed that you’d rather see on a court?’” Obama’s inability to appoint Garland proves Ginsburg’s point. Under current circumstances, it unlikely that Ginsburg will be retiring anytime soon.

The rise of social media has had a clear, negative impact on the Supreme Court, raising the stakes of nominations and thus reducing the effectiveness of government. Social media is not going away anytime soon, so it is important to find ways to reduce the contention surrounding Supreme Court appointments. Some political scientists have recommended instituting term limits for Supreme Court justices. With the rise of the role of celebrity culture in politics and increased polarization, term limits will not solve everything. Nevertheless, they may be a step in the right direction towards reducing the stakes of appointments and thus making the overall process more efficient and cooperative for all branches of government.