It is frequently observed that the confirmation process for justices is becoming more partisan, but this characterization is incomplete, even misleading. The classic kind of congressional partisanship occurs when parties rally around or oppose policies or nominees of the sitting President, simply by virtue of his party. And if the President takes a different position or nominates a person of different views for the same role, partisans of his party tend to happily fall in line with the new world their leader has created.
But both Republicans and Democrats have views on the appropriate role of judges that transcend the vicissitudes of presidential leadership. When George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers, it was Republicans who scuttled her nomination, fearing probably correctly that she lacked the depth of understanding to maintain what they believed was a lawful jurisprudence. The jurisprudence favored by Republicans has been working itself pure for decades and now embraces originalism in constitutional law and textualism in statutory interpretation, but that accepts a relatively large role for precedent.
The Democratic judicial philosophy has also become clearer. At first, it was focused on protecting precedent in general, most importantly that of Roe v. Wade. But now that the Supreme Court under Chief Justices Rehnquist and Roberts have made many decisions, such as Citizens United, that flout Democratic policy objectives Democrats no longer exalt precedent but empathy as well as good results for their preferred minorities and “the little guy”as opposed to corporations.
The confirmation hearings on Neil Gorsuch exposed this jurisprudential chasm.
Justice Scalia is one of the few jurists who vindicate Carlyle’s great man theory of history. Because he brought three large and different talents to the Court, he changed the course of its jurisprudence. He had the intellect to fashion theories of interpretation, the pen to make them widely known, and the ebullience to make it all seem fun.
More than any other individual, Justice Scalia was the person responsible for the turn to both originalism in constitutional law and textualism in statutory interpretation on the Court and in the legal world more generally. Indeed, it was Scalia who made a crucial move in modern originalist theory. While a variety of scholars had argued that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the intent of the Framers, original intent originalism had some disabling flaws, the most important of which it is impossible often to find a unitary intent in a multimember deliberative body. Scalia championed a theory of original meaning that made the Constitution depend not on the intent of the Framers but on the publicly available meaning of its provisions.
It has been reported that this term is shaping up to be one of the most liberal at the Supreme Court since 1969. Another report by Eric Posner shows that the justices appointed by Republican Presidents are agreeing less among themselves, while the justices appointed by Democratic Presidents remain a united bloc.
We should be cautious about reading this information as a trend. The case mix changes from year to year and thus there can be expected to be overall ideological variation from year to year depending on that mix and the justices’ idiosyncratic views. But there is no doubt that the country is moving left at least on social issues and the oldest adage about the Court’s decision-making is that it follows the election returns. Certainly, the expected creation of a right to same-sex marriage would be unimaginable without the rapid and dramatic shift in public opinion on the issue.
The more interesting question is why Republican justices tend to fracture while the Democrats stay united. The first reason is that Supreme Court opinions implicate not only ideology, but jurisprudential methodology and Republicans are more divided on jurisprudence.
There are three paradigmatic types of Supreme Court justices—the jurisprude, the ideologue, and the partisan. While no actual Supreme Court justice perfectly represents the ideal, some present pretty close approximations. It is hard to understand or predict the results of Supreme Court cases without determining how a particular justice fits into these types.
The jurisprude is a justice committed to a particular method of judging rather than an particular set of results. On the current Court the examples par excellence are Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas who are committed to originalism. From the past Justice Hugo Black was a textualist and Felix Frankfurter, his sparring partner, advocated an historical jurisprudence. These jurisprudential commitments frequently lead to unusual ideological results. Justice Scalia (and Justice Thomas as well) vote for criminal defendants based on their close readings of the language of the Constitution, like the Confrontation Clause. For originalist reasons, Justice Thomas is no friend of preemption claims with the result that in his opinions businesses often lose to state tort law and regulation. Despite being a New Deal populist as a Senator, Black as a Justice wanted to enforce the Contract Clause against debtors.
The ideologue is a justice who is strongly right or left of center as that is defined in his day and votes that way.
Here’s a case worth watching: this past April, the Center for Individual Rights (lead attorney Michael Rosman) and Jones Day (Michael Carvin) filed a First Amendment challenge to California’s “agency shops” for public school teachers. (An “agency shop” means that non-union members must still pay a fee to the union for activities related to collective bargaining.) Plaintiffs are teachers who have about had it with the defendant unions. The State of California will likely join the case on the defendants’ side. A recent blog on the case is here; a copy of the complaint here. This baby ought to move fast:…