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.
For some reason Supreme Court cases seem to come in packs, when this or that issue captures the justices’ attention. On deck this Term: civil rights cases (over affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act, among other issues); and cases involving Fifth Amendment “takings” of private property. So far, the justices have granted cert in three cases. They involve water; more water; and raisins.
Among the Supreme Court’s most lamentable habits is a lack of candor in cases of grave political, economic, and social import.
By “lack of candor,” I don’t mean the shading or the strategic deployment of legal arguments. That comes with the constitutional territory, and we have tolerably efficient social practices—the publicity of judicial opinions, a watchful and disputatious legal profession—to flush out mistakes and misconduct. What I mean is (1) a deliberate judicial attempt to recruit political institutions (Congress, states, lower courts) into bringing about desired social outcomes, coupled with (2) an ex ante maneuver to evade responsibility for an anticipated adverse result.