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.
Here’s Linda Greenhouse, the former NYT Supreme Court reporter, interviewed about themes very important here at F1@1F:
JD: In an article you wrote for The New York Times, you say that “the court lives in constant dialogue with other institutions, formal and informal, and that when it strays too far outside the existing political or social consensus, the result is a palpable tension both inside and outside the court.” In what instances have you observed the court straying too far from present social or political consensus?
There was a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s that overturned acts of Congress on the ground that Congress didn’t have the constitutional authority to have passed those laws in the first place. I made a big deal about it because I just thought it was really fascinating. There was a pushback against that. Congress pushed back, and the political system pushed back. The court stopped doing it. They tended to be very technical decisions, but subgroups of the population were very interested. That maybe was an instance of the court overreaching, that you could call a Federalist revolution. Then, a lot of people cite Roe v. Wade as the court overreaching. That’s not my view in that instance. There was a huge debate going on about abortion at the time, and the court actually had plausible reasons to think that it was following public opinion in Roe.
JD: What was the difference in the political environment surrounding Roe v. Wade and that surrounding a case like Brown. v. Board of Education? What made people think that the court could have been overreaching in Roe, but not in Brown?
Well, of course there can be many reasons. One reason could be that equal protection, which is what Brown is based on, is hard wired into the Constitution, and it’s just a question of, did equal protection mean “separate but equal”? One could have disagreed with Brown, and of course many areas in the South took decades to come around to it, but you couldn’t appropriately argue that it wasn’t the business of the Supreme Court to decide the issue of the rights of black citizens. Of course, the Constitution doesn’t contain the word abortion. So, there’s always the argument that the court was out of line in doing anything about abortion, yay or nay. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about giving the court the right to step into that area. That’s not my personal view, but it certainly distinguishes the Roe controversy from Brown v. Board. [...]
JD: To what extent do you believe that the court has become politicized? How much does public opinion affect the way judges vote?
Well, Barry Friedman wrote a book that’s 682 pages on the subject, called The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution. But Barry Friedman’s thesis, which I agree with, is not that the court wakes up in the morning, puts its finger in the wind and says, you know, “what’s blowing today?” but that over time, the court tends to situate itself in the mainstream of public opinion and it reflects public opinion, which makes sense, because the justices get on the court through the political process of the president nominating them and the Senate confirming them. And as a part of the government, the court is really limited to its power to persuade, its power to command the respect of the public, which it has succeeded in doing to a remarkable degree over the years. In social science polling, the court is always the most respected arm of government. The court really has been pretty successful in reflecting not necessarily the opinion of the moment, but the tenor of the time, and I think that’s not surprising.
JD: Do you agree with people who say that sometimes the court’s decisions are influenced by liberal media bias?
Well, no, the whole “Greenhouse Effect?” Properly understood, they are referring to me not as an individual but as sort of an embodiment of Eastern liberal media, namely The New York Times. No, I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s certainly true that over time, the court certainly cannot be completely at odds with the American public. I mean, that’s what happened in the Roosevelt court-packing crisis. I hear people speculate that if we were ever to pass a health care bill with a mandate that the court would declare it unconstitutional, but I would be completely shocked if that ever happened, because that would really be a return to the 1930s, where the court was standing in the way of major social legislation that the public had called for. So, I would be extremely surprised if that ever happened again. [F1@1F NOTE: My thoughts exactly.]
JD: In writing of the Supreme Court’s relationship with society, you say, the Supreme Court is often a follower: it ratifies or consolidates change, rather than propelling it, although in the midst of a heated debate about a big case, it can appear otherwise. What do you mean by this?
Well, I think I probably had Roe v. Wade in mind. Abortion reform had been going on for 15 years by the time the court decided Roe, so when people say that historically, the court started it, no, they didn’t. The court doesn’t start much. It can’t, really. Cases reach the court after years of debate. Just look at Proposition 8. It’s coming up ten years after Lawrence v. Texas and five years after the start of same sex marriages in San Francisco City Hall. So, things get to the court only because they have been working their way up through the rest of society, and it’s worth keeping that in mind.
One of the defining features of the John Roberts Court is how rarely it’s accused of being tone-deaf. With a handful of exceptions, the conservative majority on the court has chipped, sanded, and whittled away at the law without need of a drop cloth. With a toolbox that includes judicial minimalism and constitutional avoidance, a penchant for overruling old cases without explicitly saying so, and an uncanny sense of just how much activism the public will tolerate, the Roberts Court has done a remarkable job of conforming its behavior to the prevailing public mood, resisting the impulse to go too far.
That second link? Yeah. Rock!
The thing about social change through the courts is that it invariably rests on what the broader public thinks. Consider the famous social change cases: Brown vs. Board of Education on segregation in public schools; almost any abortion case; Lawrence vs. Texas on gay rights and anti-sodomy laws. In these cases the court did not buck or define social views so much as confirm them. More and more, for better or for worse, Supreme Court decisions on social issues reflect opinion polls. [...]
The high court, perversely, felt broadcasting should be banned precisely because “this case . . . involves issues subject to intense debate in our society.” The majority stressed that studies had not shown “the effect of broadcasting in high-profile, divisive cases.” What, imaginably, could that bad effect be? That the American people might have views on the subject and debate them? [...]
It’s wrong, of course, to think the Supreme Court will “resolve” this issue, any more than it managed to resolve the issues of segregation, abortion, the death penalty or gay rights, for that matter. But what the court ultimately decides (if it decides), and on what basis, will profoundly affect the terms of the debate. If matters of social change are going to be debated in the courts, we all should get to view the process — and, through our reactions, to participate in it.
Friedman just came out with a book, The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution, which comprehensively examines the Court’s responsiveness to public opinion up through the early part of this century.
Despite Friedman’s–and others‘–disappointment that the Prop. 8 case will not be televised, the people who camp out to see Perry v. Schwarzenegger at the district court and, ultimately, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, are the ones whose reactions to the process are so strong as to compel them to participate through viewing the arguments in the flesh. And here, Perry is not unique: the same lines form for the cases of great public interest that never had Perry‘s prospect of live broadcast.
For this reason, by waiting out in line, I seek to test the Roberts’ Court’s sensitivity to its surrounding political climate as represented by the sample of citizens who care enough about the case and/or the Court to get to One First Street before the sun rises. It’s still too early to tell what I’ll find, but I’m sure I’ll find something. Perhaps I’ll put my interviews on video. That would be the next best thing, wouldn’t it?