Readers of Law and Liberty may have noticed that I am a fan of Justice Antonin Scalia (for example, here and here). I am also an admirer of Robert H. Bork, whom my colleague John McGinnis has described as “the most important legal scholar on the right in the last 50 years.” Bork was a pioneer in both the field of antitrust law (with his influential 1978 book The Antitrust Paradox) and constitutional law, as the father of what we now call “originalism.” In his seminal 1971 article in the Indiana Law Journal, entitled “Neutral Principles and Some First Amendment Problems,” and in his later best-selling books, The Tempting of America (1990) and Slouching Towards Gomorrah (1996), Bork eviscerated the “noninterpretive” theories of constitutional law that dominated the legal academy in the 1960s and 1970s.
There is a long established convention of referring to the Supreme Court in a given era by the name of its Chief Justice. Thus, we have the Marshall Court, the Warren Court, and the Rehnquist Court. But this name is often a misnomer because the Chief was not the most influential member of his Court. Like all other justices, he always has but one vote. Particularly in the modern era, where political scientists can evaluate judges based on ideological scores, the better name for a Court might that of the swing or median Justice. Under this view, we are living currently in the era of the Kennedy Court.
But probably not for much longer. Justice Anthony Kennedy has announced to prospective clerks that he thinking of retiring. Moreover, as I have previously discussed, with rise of partisanship, justices now have every incentive to retire when both the Presidency and the Senate is under the control of the party whose President appointed them. Otherwise the Court may be left short-handed for an indefinite period and they may be replaced by justices of the opposite party when that alignment finally occurs. Kennedy cannot be confident that the Republicans will control the Senate after 2018.
Assuming that, as is likely, Kennedy is replaced by a justice with views like Neil Gorsuch, the Roberts Court will actually become the Roberts Court in more than name, because the Chief Justice will also become the median justice.
The new politics of Supreme Court confirmations substantially affects the retirement calculus for justices. The elimination of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations together with the much stronger possibility that a Senate controlled by one party will not confirm a Court nomination by the President of the other will change the date of many justices’ retirements.
Three objectives inform the retirement decisions of Supreme Court justices. First, justices would like to preserve their legacy and thus would prefer to be replaced by a justice like themselves. Second, most justices want to hand back the seat to a President of the party that appointed them. This is secondary to the first objective and when their judicial views diverge substantially from the party that appointed them, as it did in the cases of Justices Blackmun, Stevens and Souter, they will resign during the Presidency of the other party. Third, they want to resign at a time when it will not cause institutional damage to the Court or inconvenience to their colleagues.
The death of the filibuster and the possibility of a blockade generally makes it much easier to meet these objectives if the President and the Senate are controlled by the same party. First, the blockade can leave the Court short staffed, inconveniencing their colleagues. More importantly, the standoff between the President and Senate places the Court in a partisan cross-fire, harming its legitimacy.
In contrast, the absence of a filibuster gives a free hand to the party that appointed the justice if he resigns during a period of unified control of the Senate and Presidency by that party.
The cowardice of Fisher II suggests that Justice Anthony Kennedy fears another confrontation by the “Wise Latina.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s milquetoast 4-3 opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas (Fisher II) has been lambasted from all directions as “a devastating blow to the cause of a color-blind Constitution” (by John Yoo), a “logical pretzel” (by the Wall Street Journal), and a “hedgy, compromise opinion” representing a “pyrrhic victory” for UT that “paves the way for more lawsuits against more universities in the future” (by The Daily Beast). The most damning criticism, however, was mounted by Justice Samuel Alito, whose blistering 51-page dissenting opinion begins with these words: “Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case.” Something strange, indeed.