Many on Left want to politicize American law and they are emboldened by the vacancy on the Supreme Court to achieve their long sought goal. But don’t take my word for it. Zephyr Teachout, a professor of law at Fordham, ex-candidate for the governorship of New York and current candidate for Congress, laments the current state of antitrust law: “If you can depoliticize antitrust law, you can depoliticize anything.”
The quote comes at the end of a long article in the New York Times in which many commentators complain about Supreme Court decisions friendly to business. The evidence that the Roberts Court has been the best court for business in decades comes from a study by Lee Epstein, Bill Landes, and Richard Posner. This study has been ably critiqued by Jonathan Adler, who notes, among other things, that the study leaves out regulatory decisions quite unfriendly to business.
But my observation here is that neither the authors of the study nor the commentators in the Times article try to show that that the decisions in favor of business were legally incorrect.
The Roberts Court’s decisions on campaign finance are its most important, because campaign regulation shapes the elections that affect all policy outcomes. No issue has generated more unyielding divisions on the Court. A fault line generally divides the principles of one set of the Justices—Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito—from those generally in dissent—Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan currently (and Souter and Stevens when they were on the Court).
I have a new paper that explains the division of the justices. The majority believes that campaign finance regulations should be analyzed under free speech principles established in other contexts. The latter generally seeks to decide campaign finance regulation issues by considerations unique to campaign finance regulation.
This doctrinal disagreement plays out at a variety of levels. The Citizens United majority protected corporations in the context of campaign finance regulation as the Supreme Court has in other areas of the First Amendment. The dissenters would not have. That majority rejected as interests asserted for the regulation, like concerns over distortion or equality, when they were rejected elsewhere in First Amendment jurisprudence. The dissenters would have accepted such interests as justifications. The Justices also disagreed on the doctrinal tests to be applied to assess the bona fides of campaign finance regulation. The Citizens United and McCutcheon majorities applied traditionally stringent tests for justifying intrusion on First Amendment interests. The dissenters would have given deference to the legislature.
Finally, the majority and the dissenters persistently disagreed on the structure of the First Amendment itself.
The federal preemption of state law is a subject that only dorks could love. Four of them (Jon Klick, Mike Petrino, J.P. Sevilla, yours truly) have just published an empirical analysis of preemption decisions in the Rehnquist and the Roberts Courts. Preemption is the Supreme Court’s daily diet, with three or four cases each Term. So you can actually do the numbers. What the numbers show is that the once-humdrum preemption issue has become a matter of intense ideological contestation. Preemption cases are less likely to be (nearly) unanimous than the general run of decided cases; and in contested cases, the…
When Justice John Paul Stevens retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy complained that “We have right now a very, very activist, conservative activist, Supreme Court. . . . I would hope that the president’s nominee can get us back away from that.” Leahy was, presumably, quite happy with the nomination of Elena Kagan to succeed Stevens.
In her short time on the bench, Justice Kagan has closely followed the voting pattern of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On the other hand, Justice Clarence Thomas has been singled out by Senator Leahy as one of the “most activist judges we have right now,” and by activist he meant judges who “would strike down a law passed by the people and substitute something of their own,” and Justice Samuel Alito has been denounced as a pivotal figure in the “divisive” and “activist conservative bloc” on the Roberts Court.
So which of these justices most often votes to strike down laws “passed by the people”? The answer is
A few months ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained why she needed to stay on the Court in part by claiming “if it’s measured in terms of readiness to overturn legislation, this is one of the most activist courts in history.” Justice Ginsburg was needed to help lead the dissenters and push back against judicial activism. It is a nice story, but has little relation to the truth. In fact, the Roberts Court has a credible claim to being the least activist Court in the history of the United States.
At the volokhconspiracy, Jonathan Adler takes shots at a law review study by Lee Epstein, William Landes, and Richard Posner, purporting to document the Roberts Court’s unprecedented pro-business bias. The study was reported in a New York Times piece by Adam Liptak. After noting significant methodological flaws in the study (which, admittedly, I haven’t read yet but which seems just as shoddy as the “judicial behavior” literature in general), Adler comments: Quantitative studies of the Supreme Court’s behavior can be illuminating, but they only go so far, and they have a difficult time accounting for the actual impact of the Court’s…