Justice Kagan warns U.S. Supreme Court must maintain public confidence

By Dan Levine

BIG SKY, Montana (Reuters) - Liberal Justice Elena Kagan said on Thursday that it would be a "dangerous thing for a democracy" if the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court loses the confidence of the American public.

Speaking in public for the first time since the court's momentous ruling last month that overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, Kagan stressed the importance of the justices staying in their proper roles as judges and not dictating public policy.

"I'm not talking about any particular decision or even any particular series of decisions, but if over time the court loses all connection with the public and with public sentiment, that's a dangerous thing for a democracy," Kagan said at a judicial conference in Montana.

The court, America's top judicial body, has a 6-3 conservative majority that has boldly asserted its power in the abortion ruling and other recent cases.

"Overall, the way the court retains its legitimacy and fosters public confidence is by acting like a court, is by doing the kinds of things that do not seem to people political or partisan," added Kagan, who has served on the court since 2010.

Kagan, who dissented in the abortion case along with the two other liberal justices, added that the court "earns its legitimacy by what it does, by the way it behaves."

She said there have been times in history when the court has been "unconstrained and undisciplined" when justices "really just attempted to basically enact their own policy or political or social preferences" and said the current justices should guard against that.

Kagan also said justices have to be consistent when implementing their judicial philosophies and cannot abandon that approach when it will not result in their preferred outcome.

Opinion polls have shown a drop in public approval of the court in the wake of the abortion ruling, which capped its blockbuster term that ended last month. In other rulings, the court bolstered gun rights, expanded religious rights and curbed the ability of President Joe Biden's administration to issue broad regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants.

The court's new term begins in October with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, appointed by Biden to replace fellow liberal Stephen Breyer, who retired last month.

Among the cases it already has taken up for its next term are two that give its conservative bloc an opportunity to end college and university policies considering race in admissions to achieve more student diversity. The court has also taken up two major election cases that could have broad implications for the 2024 elections and beyond.

(Reporting by Dane Levine; Additional reporting and writing by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)