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.
From my many friends who are Democrats, I hear a common complaint: the Republican Party is a party of obstruction while the Democratic party is much more accommodating. Of course, the first reaction of most Republican would be to note the many not so accommodating actions of Democrats, from the attempt to filibuster Justice Samuel Alito to the refusal to negotiate any reforms in social security with the newly reelected George W. Bush. But such back and forth is pretty fruitless and may miss a more fundamental point.
It is not at all clear that it is rational for parties to engage in the same amount of obstruction. The rational amount of obstruction depends on how easy it is to repeal the policy being obstructed. If it is easy to repeal the policy, it does not make sense to pay the political price for obstruction, because the policy can be readily ended when the party comes to power. But if the policy is hard to repeal, obstruction becomes a more natural course.
Thus, the real question on the rationality and justification for obstruction is whether the Republican and Democratic parties face the same political terrain for repealing the legislation they oppose. And I do not believe they do, particularly when it comes to the creation or expansion of entitlements.
The cowardice of Fisher II suggests that Justice Anthony Kennedy fears another confrontation by the “Wise Latina.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s milquetoast 4-3 opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas (Fisher II) has been lambasted from all directions as “a devastating blow to the cause of a color-blind Constitution” (by John Yoo), a “logical pretzel” (by the Wall Street Journal), and a “hedgy, compromise opinion” representing a “pyrrhic victory” for UT that “paves the way for more lawsuits against more universities in the future” (by The Daily Beast). The most damning criticism, however, was mounted by Justice Samuel Alito, whose blistering 51-page dissenting opinion begins with these words: “Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case.” Something strange, indeed.
The sad death of Justice Antonin Scalia reminds us that one of the most important reasons for voting for a President is Supreme Court nominations. Republican presidents in the last two decades have made substantial progress in restoring republican government by appointing judges who are substantially more faithful to implementing the constitutional design than their predecessors. Nominating Donald Trump would put all this progress at risk. Trump does not have the intellectual resources, the temperament, or the inclination to advance constitutionality fidelity.
First, he has demonstrated sheer ignorance of the our judicial and indeed constitutional system. In the debate on Thursday in defending himself from charges that he had wrongly held up his sister as a model judge, he argued that she had signed the same “bill” as Samuel Alito when they were on the appellate court together. Trump does not seem to know the difference between legislation and a judicial opinion. And he was actually wrong about the judicial decision of which he spoke. Then-Judge Alito dissociated himself from key parts of Maryanne Trump Barry’s opinion on abortion rights.
Second, Trump has commitments that make it very unlikely that he would appoint an originalist judge.
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