WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts says he is concerned that partisan political battles over Supreme Court nominations have led to a widespread misunderstanding about the role of the court.
Roberts told an audience at New England Law School in Boston late Wednesday that the heated confirmation process — along with misleading attacks on the court's opinions — lea the public to believe the court is just as politically motivated as other branches of government.
"When you have a sharply political divisive hearing process, it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms," he said, according to a video of his remarks provided by the school.
"If the Democrats and Republicans have been fighting so fiercely about whether you're going to be confirmed, it's natural for some member of the public to think, 'Well you must be identified in a particular way as a result of that process,'" he said.
Roberts, now in his 11th year on the court, said criticism of the court doesn't bother him, but he said much of it seems to be based on a perception that the justices are influenced by politics.
"If we uphold a particular political decision, that remains the decision of the political branches, and the fact that it may lead to criticism of us is often a mistake," he said. "We do have to be above or apart from the criticism because we, of course, make unpopular decisions — very unpopular decisions."
In fact, the justices do line up frequently with the positions of the party of the president who appointed them. Controversial decisions on gay marriage, capital punishment, health care and campaign finance have been marked by deep ideological differences between liberal and conservative justices.
Roberts' comments come as he's been under criticism from conservatives and some Republican presidential candidates for twice voting to uphold President Barack Obama's health care law.
On the Democratic side, presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have pilloried the court for its 2010 decision that lifted limits on political spending by corporations and labor unions.
Scrutiny of the court is sure to increase later this year as it rules on politically charged cases involving abortion, affirmative action, labor unions and Obama's immigration policies.
Roberts stressed that the justices "don't work as Republicans or Democrats."
"When we issue a decision it's usually discussed as 'Oh, you're in favor of this,' or 'You're in favor of that,'" he said.
"In fact, a ruling often is that whoever does get to decide this or that is allowed to do it and it's not unconstitutional, it's consistent with law," Roberts said. "But we often have no policy view on the matter at all."
Roberts was most critical of the increased partisanship surrounding the Senate process for confirming new justices. He said it "is not functioning very well" and "doesn't seem to be very productive."
He noted that during the 1980s and 1990s, Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were confirmed by nearly unanimous votes in the Senate. Yet in recent years, confirmation of other high court nominees was split largely along party lines.
"That suggests to me that the process is being used for something other than ensuring the qualifications of the nominees," he said. "It's a process now where the members of the committee frequently ask questions they know it would be inappropriate for us to answer."