There is a powerful yet enduring myth in America that was shattered as the Supreme Court closed out its 2017 term. That myth is that law and politics are separate, or at least that the law can constrain political choices. With 5-4 decisions upholding President Trump’s travel ban, striking down mandatory public sector union fees, and the resignation of Justice Kennedy, that myth has all but collapsed.
The myth of the law was well described by nineteenth century writer Alexis DeTocqueville, who declared in Democracy in America that: “There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.” This quote captures two aspects of the myth of law. First, that at some point all political questions in America eventually turn into legal ones capable of resolution by the courts. Second, judicial resolution of controversies means that the law is capable of addressing political disputes, perhaps even permanently, if the decision was made on constitutional grounds.
This myth has played out several ways across American history. One has been in assuming that the Supreme Court stands above politics and that when it decides it does so on the basis of what the law says, not ideology. As Chief Justice John Marshall said in Marbury v. Madison, perhaps the most important case in American law: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.”
The other way it has played out is in many groups placing faith in the judiciary as the guardian or protector of their rights. They did so because they did not trust real politics, such as elections and voting, as they way to secure t heir political objectives. Again to quote another Justice, here Robert Jackson in West Virginia v. Barnette in writing the majority opinion striking down a law mandating the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance: “One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” Law stands in opposition to politics, the former constraints that latter, making the judiciary the ultimate protector of abortion, gay, minority, and free speech rights.
Yet the increasing reality is that the law is not above politics, and the judiciary does not use it to resolve political questions, but instead decisions are political themselves. Political science research shows that more often than not votes by individual Justices reflect their personal political beliefs. In recent history, the best predictor of how individual Justices will vote is to look at which president appointed them. In my own research on Justice Scalia, one could show clear biases in decisions based on the issue presented or the litigants in the case. All of the above is similarly true with the current members of the Supreme Court.
But until 2000 the Supreme Court was able to manage its reputation and hide behind the myth of law. But when in Bush v. Gore the Supreme Court decided the outcome of the presidential race, public opinion significantly split over it and it has widened since. Surveys suggest declining confidence in the Supreme Court’s neutrality, and increasing Justices to many look more like politicians in robes. Chief Justice Roberts, who said in his confirmation hearing that “My job is to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat,” looks like the manager of one political team of four Justices playing against another team of four, dueling for the swing Justice Anthony Kennedy to pitch or hit for their team.
In his tenure on the Court Kennedy was the critical vote in cores of 5-4 cases. In most years he was in the majority 90% of the time, and in 5-4 decisions, some years 100%. For the last 30 years it has been Justice Kennedy’s court, as he held the balance of power and restrained the most extreme ideologies. But even he revealed his biases. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the Supreme Court signaled after initial oral arguments that it wanted to decide a broader case than originally presented. When it finally decided the case it ruled in favor or corporate free speech rights, seeing efforts to regulate corporations as censorship. And now in Janus v. AFSCME, it ruled against unions, with Kennedy casting the critical fifth vote.
Scalia’s death, the delay in preventing President Obama from appointing a successor, Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch, and now Kennedy’s retirement and the politics of his replacement only have or will exacerbate the demythologizing of the law, especially, and which is likely, Justices continue to vote ideologically as political science research suggests. This is bad because one of the last realms where polarization and politics had not tainted government may be gone, leaving the public without any checks on the extremism that has marked contemporary politics.
Perhaps the only bright side may be recognition of the limits on constitutionalizing politics. By that, one lesson that may be learned is that the judiciary is not the best or final place to turn advance a political agenda. Elections matter, and groups may have to resort to the ballot box and politics to achieve power and protect their rights or advance their interests, and not rely upon the courts to do so.