In today’s New York Times Week in Review section, Peter Baker writes of “Obama v. Roberts: The Struggle to Come“:
The urgency is greater this year since the Citizens United decision in January, in which the Roberts court threw out precedents to rule that corporations have First Amendment rights to spend money in election campaigns. Advisers said the ruling crystallized for Mr. Obama just how sweeping the chief justice was willing to be. Indeed, some around the president suspect that Chief Justice Roberts, after moving incrementally in his first few years on the bench, has taken a more assertive approach since Mr. Obama took office.
This assertion defies facts. In fact, I began F1@1F to explore whether the opposite holds true–that Chief Justice Roberts has guided the Court more modestly under Democratic electoral dominance than he had at the start of his Chiefdom. From F1@1F’s very first post:
During the 2006-07 term, the first full term in which both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito served together, Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Meanwhile, the Roberts Court aggressively pushed rightward on abortion, student speech, school desegregation, gender discrimination, and campaign finance. The Court’s 2007-08 term proceeded alongside a divided government with a Republican President and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The Court reflected the division: President Bush, seeking a legacy, saw a conservative interpretation of the Second Amendment win out in Heller; the Democratic Congress, elected in a wave of anti-war sentiment, found its hostility to Bush’s war on terror policies reflected in the Court’s granting habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees in Boumediene. Last term, which straddled the Bush and Obama presidencies, found the Court taking a blockbuster case in in September 2008 that threatened to invalidate a key civil rights provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but pulled back with an 8-1 decision in June 2009 upholding the provision. This term, the first one fully operating alongside a Democratic Presidency and Congress, is progressing in an almost post-partisan fashion, as if the conservative Court has taken to heart President Obama’s overtures to the Right unwelcome among Congressional Republicans. The Court is reckoning with one case that pits liberal values against liberal values, another in which two conservative values clash; further, McDonald v. City of Chicago may result in a grand bargain in which the conservative Heller majority can extend its interpretation of the Second Amendment to the states by breathing new life into a clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that could strengthen constitutional protection for liberal causes. In fact, the only case that threatens a drastic shift to the right in a politically salient issue is Citizens United, the campaing finance case I camped out for in September.
Since I wrote that in December, Citizens United has emerged, as expected, as the Court’s one big rightward expenditure of its political capital this term. And although the McDonald oral argument put to death my speculation of a grand bargain between the Court’s liberal and conservative blocs, its result–incorporation of the Second Amendment to the states–will not cause a national backlash and political firestorm.
The OT09 docket’s conspicuous absence of any other red-hot button case is, in my opinion, hardly an accident. Roberts knows just how much–or little–political capital his Court possesses to achieve conservative gains under a Democratic electoral mandate, and he has picked his battles accordingly. Baker’s sources are in plain error to use Citizens United as proof of a more aggressive, confrontational Roberts Court.
Baker’s article was not a total wash, however. Noting the Chief Justice and the President’s public colloquy of late, the article concludes:
The debate between the men, by necessity, takes place in this way — indirectly, and soon through the confirmation hearing of a new nominee. Christopher Edley Jr., an Obama adviser and dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, said it was a shame the two could not have at it one on one.
“Televise this chief justice and this president on stage at the Kennedy Center for three hours talking about the role of government and the future of our polity,” Mr. Edley said. “This historic clash of intellectual titans would be the most powerful civics lesson since the Federalist Papers, and we could sure use it.”
We sure could.
UPDATE: Meanwhile, in The New Republic, Barry Friedman and Jeff Rosen support what I’ve written here several times over (or the other way around – as they are law professors who write books, not blogs):
How will the Supreme Court respond to these attempts to enlist it in a war with the president and Congress? If history is any predictor, the justices won’t be interested in a sustained assault. As both of us have written in recent books, on the big issues, over time, the Court tends to come into line with public opinion. Think here of gay rights, women’s rights, and abortion. And when the Court has wandered outside the mainstream–on issues like the death penalty or economic regulation–it has quickly retreated after encountering resistance from the public, Congress, or the president. The Court, in other words, is very sensitive to the possibility of backlash against its actions; and if anything, the heated reaction to its recent decision striking down campaign finance restrictions on corporations is only likely to make it more so.
Which brings us to the Roberts Court. Is it likely to stand in the way of Obama and the Democrats’ agenda? What will happen, in particular, with health care?
We aren’t seers, and a lot can happen before any of this makes its way to the Court. But nothing we’ve seen—including January’s decision in Citizens United—leads us to believe that the Court is likely to behave differently in the future than it has in the past.
Which means that the Court is going to be hesitant to launch a sustained challenge to the core of the Democratic agenda. And in the unlikely (but not impossible) event that it does decide to launch a sustained challenge, the justices will find themselves under attack in return as long as the Democrats still have popular support. If that happens, history suggests that such attacks on the Court will eventually precipitate some kind of judicial retreat.