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The Roberts Court is born

Adam Winkler is a constitutional law professor at UCLA and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.

Today’s Supreme Court is often referred to as Anthony Kennedy’s Court. Although Kennedy is the swing Justice who usually casts the deciding vote in close cases, the landmark ruling this week in the health care cases clearly mark the maturation of the “Roberts Court.”

Chief Justice John Roberts was the surprising swing vote in today’s Obamacare decision. Although he agreed with the four conservative Justices, including Kennedy, that the individual mandate was not a regulation of interstate commerce, he voted with the Court’s moderates to hold that it was justified as a tax. Because people who don’t obtain insurance pay a tax to the IRS, the mandate was within Congress’s power to raise taxes for the general welfare. As a result, the Affordable Care Act was upheld.

With this deft ruling, Roberts avoided what was certain to be a cascade of criticism of the high court. No Supreme Court has struck down a president’s signature piece of legislation in over 75 years. Had Obamacare been voided, it would have inevitably led to charges of aggressive judicial activism.  Roberts peered over the abyss and decided he didn’t want to go there.

Roberts’ decision was consistent with his confirmation hearings pledge to respect the co-equal branches of government, push for consensus, and reach narrow rulings designed to build broad coalitions on the Court. He promised to respect precedent. His jurisprudence, he said, would be marked by “modesty and humility” and protection of the precious institutional legitimacy of the Court.

Today, the institutional legitimacy of the Court was buttressed. President Obama wasn’t the only winner at the Supreme Court today. So was the Supreme Court itself.

Roberts’ humble move was a surprise only because his oft-stated concern for protecting the Court by avoiding bold rulings doesn’t always hold. Despite today’s decision, the Roberts Court is hardly conservative in the sense of cautious or avoiding bold rulings. In contrast to an older conservatism that emphasized judicial restraint, the Roberts Court is not hesitant to forcefully asserts its power.

Since John Roberts became Chief Justice in 2005, the Court has issued one landmark ruling after another. The Roberts Court gave us Citizens United, which struck down longstanding limits on corporate political spending.  This Court also allowed new restrictions on women’s right to choose; became the first Supreme Court in American history to strike down a gun control law as a violation of the Second Amendment; effectively outlawed voluntary efforts by public schools to racially integrate; and curtailed the reach of environmental protections.

In many of these decisions, the Roberts Court overturned or ignored precedent, including Rehnquist Court decisions less than a decade old. Prior to Citizens United, the Supreme Court had explicitly held in two cases that corporate political expenditures could be limited – the most recent of which was handed down in 2003. Six years before the Roberts Court upheld the federal ban on “partial birth” abortion, the Rehnquist Court, which wasn’t known for its liberal leanings, had overturned a nearly identical law.

Of course, the Roberts Court isn’t the first to overturn precedents and issue major rulings. Yet this Court has been uniquely willing to do so by sharply divided 5-4 majorities. The Warren Court’s Brown decision was famously 9-0. New York Times v. Sullivan, which freed up the media to discuss public figures, was decided by the same margin. Gideon v. Wainwright, on the constitutional right to counsel, and Loving v. Virginia, invaliding bans on interracial marriage, were also unanimous. Even Roe v. Wade was decided by an overwhelming 7-2 vote.

Perhaps as a result of the Roberts’ Court’s controversial 5-4 rulings, public opinion of the Court is at an historic low. Even after controversial rulings like Roe and Bush v. Gore, the Court still maintained high levels of public respect. But unlike the Warren Court, whose landmark rulings, though classified as “liberal,” didn’t match up with the platform of the Democratic Party – southern Democrats were the biggest opponents of Brown – its hard to ignore the consistent fit between the Roberts Court’s rulings and the Republican agenda.

Maybe that’s why recent polls show the Court’s public approval rating has dropped from over 80% in the 1990s to only 44% today. Three in four Americans now believe the Justices’ votes are based on politics. Nothing could be worse for the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

Roberts may have voted to save health care because he wants to preserve the Court’s capital to take on other big issues heading toward the Court. Legal experts predict the Roberts Court will invalidate a key provision of one of the most important laws in American history, the Voting Rights Act, next Term. And the Court is set to end affirmative action in public education. Both policies have been centerpieces of America’s commitment to civil rights for over forty years.

The Roberts Court has only just begun.

Recommended Citation: Adam Winkler, The Roberts Court is born, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 28, 2012, 12:01 PM),