Despite Justice Kennedy’s return to the Court’s conservative wing in the term just concluded (details below), he was a central player in the Court’s war on federalism and long-standing social norms. Chief Justice Roberts has (nominally) presided over the Court for the past 13 terms. But Justice Kennedy — far more often than any justice of his era — has been the Court’s main (and inconsistent) “decider”.
Kennedy’s legacy has been dissected almost ad infiinitum in the several days since he announced his retirement. I will offer just two samples of the (rightly) negative commentary about Kennedy before turning to a statistical summary of the Kennedy-Roberts years.
Christopher Roach offers this in “Kennedy’s Departure Diminishes Supreme Court . . . And That’s a Good Thing” (American Greatness, June 29, 2018):
Since the Earl Warren era, the Supreme Court has assumed enormous power over our politics, and this has become a significant obstacle to the constitutional design of Americans living as a self-governing people….
[T]he Supreme Court routinely has interfered with American self-government, either undoing or forcing results at various levels of government in accordance with its idiosyncratic and elitist views….
The Court undid California’s referendum on gay marriage after having earlier reversed Colorado’s referendum preventing gays from being added to the long list of “protected classes” in employment laws. Using the broad and vague mandates of “substantive due process” and “equal protection,” the Court simply decided the people were wrong and “irrational,” and Justice Kennedy authored opinions that accorded with the views of his friends and neighbors in Washington, D.C. In the process, the Court forbade the people of California and Colorado from undertaking the most quintessentially self-governing act for which the Constitution was designed: passing laws on controversial matters through a referendum.
This is merely an example. The Supreme Court has also second-guessed how wars are conducted, how schools are run, … has created new rights while ignoring those enshrined in the Constitution itself, and generally assumed the role of “super legislature.”
In addressing salient social issues, the Supreme Court has functioned as something of a Delphic Oracle, divining hidden mysteries in the otherwise prosaic constitutional text that disallows historically permitted practices on immigration, the treatment of enemy prisoners, abortion, and much else where the Constitution’s text is either silent or agnostic.
While preempting legislative supremacy and the broad powers of the executive, the Court is, in fact, unrepresentative in all meaningful ways. It is not, of course, supposed to be a representative institution. It is supposed to be a technical and intellectual job, devoted to the analysis of laws in light of other laws and our general law in the form of the Constitution. But it hasn’t been that since the 1930s.
So, in that milieu, it should be, if not representative, at least faithful to and sympathetic with the American people. But far from being sympathetic, its progressivism has been hostile to the mass of people and their views, labeling them irrational and bigoted when they deviate from the very narrow consensus formed among the almost exclusively Ivy League pedigreed justices. The retiring Justice Kennedy mostly embraced this snobbish and busy-body ethos….
[H]e was central to the developing “gay marriage” jurisprudence, which short-circuited the development of such rules (and limits) through legislatures. The left is probably right that this (and other anti-majoritarian rulings) shaped public opinion and pulled it beyond what might have happened using legislative means by themselves. But, at the same time, this approach generated significant backlash and resentment. These types of decisions have also made presidential elections, which should be about governance, instead into potential proxy fights on every social issue under the sun, when such issues otherwise could be resolved organically and diversely through political processes among the various states.
Here is Elizabeth Slattery, writing in “The Legacy of Justice Kennedy” (The Daily Signal, June 27, 2018):
It’s not always been easy for Supreme Court watchers to pigeonhole Kennedy’s jurisprudence. In fact, one mainstay of his jurisprudence and view of the Constitution was its inconsistency.
He authored the majority opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart and co-authored the plurality in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, where abortion regulations were upheld under the most deferential standard of review (rational basis).
But then he joined the liberals in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, requiring Texas to meet a higher standard of review for its commonsense regulation of abortion providers.
In Schuette v. BAMN, a case about a state’s ability to prohibit racial preferences in college admissions, Kennedy wrote:“It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds. … Freedom embraces the right, indeed the duty, to engage in a rational, civic discourse in order to determine how best to form a consensus to shape the destiny of the Nation and its people.”
Yet the following year, in Obergefell v. Hodges, Kennedy was unwilling to extend the same goodwill to voters to decide through the democratic process whether their states should recognize same-sex marriages, cutting short a vibrant public debate over the issue.
Writing for the majority in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in 2013, Kennedy held that the university must prove that its use of race in admissions met the requirements of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and sent the case back to the lower court. When the case returned in 2016, Kennedy wrote for the majority again, gutting his 2013 decision and allowing the university to continue sorting students by race without defining its diversity goals or proving that race was necessary to meet its goals.
Do the numbers bear out the impression of Kennedy as an unreliable “conservative”? Yes.
In “U.S. Supreme Court: Lines of Succession and Ideological Alignment“, I have drawn on statistics provided by SCOTUSsblog to summarize the degree of disagreement among the various justices in non-unanimous cases during each of the Court’s past 13 terms. (The use of non-unanimous cases highlights the degree of disagreement among justices, which would be blurred if all cases were included in the analysis.) The statistics yield an index of defection (D) for each justice, by term:
D = percentage disagreement with members of own wing/percentage disagreement with members of opposite wing.
The wings are the “conservative” wing (Gorsuch, Alito, Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, and Kennedy) and the “liberal” wing (Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, Souter, and Stevens).
The lower the index, the more prone is a justice to vote with the other members of his or her wing; the higher the index, the more prone is a justice to vote with members of the opposing wing. Here’s a graph of the indices, by term:
Kennedy’s long-standing proneness to defect more often than his colleagues grew markedly in the 2014-2015 terms and receded a bit in the 2016 term. His turnaround in the 2017 term restored him to the Court’s “conservative” wing.
Roberts slipped a bit in the 2017 term but is more in step with the “conservative” wing than he had been in the 2014-2015 terms.
Gorsuch started out strongly in his abbreviated 2016 term (he joined the Court in April 2017). His slippage in the 2017 term may have been due to the mix of cases at stake.
Perhaps that’s the reason for Roberts’s slippage in the 2017 term — or perhaps Roberts is “growing in office”, as leftists like to say about apostate conservatives. Time will tell.
What’s most striking about the preceding graphs, other than Kennedy’s marked departure from the “conservative” wing after the 2010 term, is the increasing coherence (ideological, not logical) of the “liberal” wing. This graph captures the difference between the wings:
The record of the past 6 terms is clear. The “liberals” stick together much more often than the “conservatives”. Perhaps that will change with the replacement of Kennedy by (one hopes) a real conservative.
See also the page “Constitution: Myths and Realities“, and these posts:
Substantive Due Process, Liberty of Contract, and the States’ Police Power
Substantive Due Process and the Limits of Privacy
Rethinking the Constitution: “Freedom of Speech, and of the Press”
Abortion and the Fourteenth Amendment
Obamacare: Neither Necessary nor Proper
Privacy Is Not Sacred
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Obamacare, Slopes, Ratchets, and the Death-Spiral of Liberty
Another Thought or Two about the Obamacare Decision
The Court in Retrospect and Prospect (II)
Abortion Rights and Gun Rights
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power? (II)
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Substantive Due Process, Liberty of Contract, and States’ “Police Power”
Why Liberty of Contract Matters
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice
Freedom of Speech and the Long War for Constitutional Governance
Restoring the Contract Clause
The Kennedy Retirement: Hope Springs Eternal
Freedom of Speech: Getting It Right
Justice Thomas on Masterpiece Cakeshop