There is a long established convention of referring to the Supreme Court in a given era by the name of its Chief Justice. Thus, we have the Marshall Court, the Warren Court, and the Rehnquist Court. But this name is often a misnomer because the Chief was not the most influential member of his Court. Like all other justices, he always has but one vote. Particularly in the modern era, where political scientists can evaluate judges based on ideological scores, the better name for a Court might that of the swing or median Justice. Under this view, we are living currently in the era of the Kennedy Court.
But probably not for much longer. Justice Anthony Kennedy has announced to prospective clerks that he thinking of retiring. Moreover, as I have previously discussed, with rise of partisanship, justices now have every incentive to retire when both the Presidency and the Senate is under the control of the party whose President appointed them. Otherwise the Court may be left short-handed for an indefinite period and they may be replaced by justices of the opposite party when that alignment finally occurs. Kennedy cannot be confident that the Republicans will control the Senate after 2018.
Assuming that, as is likely, Kennedy is replaced by a justice with views like Neil Gorsuch, the Roberts Court will actually become the Roberts Court in more than name, because the Chief Justice will also become the median justice.
I am less critical of Chief Justice John Roberts than many other conservatives and libertarians. I do disagree with some of his decisions, as I disagree with some decisions by every justice, but there are far more that I agree with than disagree. When there is no clear precedent on the subject, like the recent recess appointment case, he generally goes with the original meaning. And even when there is lot of precedent he often slaloms with the skill of a gold medalist through the precedents to move the law toward the original meaning. See Free Enterprise v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.
One’s evaluation of John Roberts’ performance may depend on how one prioritizes cases. While I disagreed with King v. Burwell, I do not think a contrary outcome would have had real-world effects, as Republicans in Congress would have caved on subsides. In contrast, on the most important constitutional issue of our time—resisting the attempt to tamp down on speech during elections—he has been the leader on the Court. He has applied neutral principles found elsewhere in First Amendment law to permit ordinary citizens to spend as much as they like to get out their views at election time, just like the media. He has given corporations the right to speak at election time, just as they do in other First Amendment contexts. He has rebuffed Justice Stephen Breyer’s dreadful idea that the Court should defer to Congress on such issues, which would turn the First Amendment from a charter of liberty into a delegation to self-interested regulators. The fate of our republic may rest on whether our representatives should be given the power to determine how opinion is shaped and he has been splendidly on the side of constitutional liberty in the most important of the cases about campaigns and speech.
But my main purpose in this post is to praise his treatment of the political question doctrine in Zivotofksy v. Kerry. He took a doctrine that was a mess and turned it into law rooted in the original meaning of the Constitution’s text.
I spent most of my post-King yesterday trying 1) to suspend disbelief; 2) suppress laughter; and 3) explain this to my kids. Epic fail at all fronts. My hunch, or at any rate my fear, is that this will turn out very badly for the Chief—an honorable man, and a capable jurist who really should know better.