The Supreme Court Phalanx

Anthony Kennedy
Anthony Kennedy; drawing by David Levine


The revolution that many commentators predicted when President Bush appointed two ultra-right-wing Supreme Court justices is proceeding with breathtaking impatience, and it is a revolution Jacobin in its disdain for tradition and precedent. Bush’s choices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, have joined the two previously most right-wing justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, in an unbreakable phalanx bent on remaking constitutional law by overruling, most often by stealth, the central constitutional doctrines that generations of past justices, conservative as well as liberal, had constructed.

These doctrines aimed at reducing racial isolation and division, recapturing democracy from big money, establishing reasonable dimensions for freedom of conscience and speech, protecting a woman’s right to abortion while recognizing social concerns about how that right is exercised, and establishing a criminal process that is fair as well as effective. The rush of 5–4 decisions at the end of the Court’s term undermined the principled base of much of this carefully established doctrine. As Justice Stephen Breyer declared, in a rare lament from the bench, “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much.”

It would be a mistake to suppose that this right-wing phalanx is guided in its zeal by some very conservative judicial or political ideology of principle. It seems guided by no judicial or political principle at all, but only by partisan, cultural, and perhaps religious allegiance. It urges judicial restraint and deference to legislatures when these bodies pass measures that political conservatives favor, like bans on particular medical techniques in abortion. But the right-wing coalition abandons restraint when it strikes down legislation that conservatives oppose, like regulations on political advertising and modest school district programs to further racial integration in public education. It claims to celebrate free speech when it declares that Congress cannot prevent rich corporations and unions from evading restrictions on political contributions. But it subordinates free speech to other policies when it holds that schools can punish students for displaying ambiguous but not disruptive slogans at school events. Lawyers have long been fond of saying, quoting Mr. Dooley, that the Supreme Court follows the election returns.1 These four justices seem to follow Fox News instead.

They need a fifth vote to win the day in particular cases, and they most often persuade Justice Anthony Kennedy to join them. Kennedy has taken Sandra Day O’Connor’s place as the swing vote on the Court. Twenty-four cases—a third of the Court’s decisions—were decided by 5–4 votes last term, nineteen of them on a strict ideological division. Kennedy voted on the winning side in all twenty-four of them. He joined with the right-wing justices in thirteen of the ideological cases; he voted against them and with the four more liberal justices—John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Ginsburg, and Breyer—in the remaining six cases, including four death penalty appeals from Texas. He showed deplorable…

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