Although the Supreme Court has been deciding cases at a glacial pace this term — and that with an almost comically small docket of only 59 merits cases — the justices have found other ways to keep busy. They have been spinning their ethical lapses (Justice Clarence Thomas), blowing off congressional oversight (Chief Justice John Roberts), giving interviews whining about public criticism (Justice Samuel Alito) and presenting awards to one another (Justice Elena Kagan to Mr. Roberts).
In the cases it has decided, the Supreme Court has gutted an important provision of the Clean Water Act and made it easier for private litigants to mount constitutional challenges to an administrative agency’s structure or existence. Opinions still to come threaten to strike down everything from affirmative action in education to student debt relief to the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Court observers might be tempted to describe all this as a relatively recent development, a function of the court’s 6-to-3 Republican-appointed supermajority. The University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman has called this the “YOLO court” (for “you only live once”), because of the majority’s apparent sense of liberation in pursuing long-held conservative goals. Mark Lemley of Stanford placed the beginning of the “imperial Supreme Court” in 2020.
Mr. Lemley is right to decry the self-aggrandizing nature of the court. But his dating is somewhat off. Judicial self-aggrandizement has been in the works for a lot longer: It has been a hallmark of the John Roberts years.
Over roughly the past 15 years, the justices have seized for themselves more and more of the national governing agenda, overriding other decision makers with startling frequency. And they have done so in language that drips with contempt for other governing institutions and in a way that elevates the judicial role above all others.
The result has been a judicial power grab.
Judges have long portrayed themselves as neutral, apolitical conduits of the law, in contrast to the sordid political branches. This portrayal serves to obscure the institution of the judiciary and to foreground the abstract, disembodied concept of the law. In turn, it serves to empower judges, who present themselves not as one type of political actor but rather as the voice of the majestic principles of the law.
But Mr. Roberts’s judiciary has increasingly taken subtext and made it text. Here are three thematic examples out of many.
Campaign Finance Law
Starting with Citizens United in 2010, the Republican-appointed majority on the court has consistently struck down provisions limiting the influence of money in politics, including provisions that it previously upheld. In a 2014 case, Mr. Roberts wrote that campaign finance regulations that pursue objectives other than eradicating quid pro quo corruption or its appearance “impermissibly inject the government into the debate over who should govern. And those who govern should be the last people to help decide who should govern.”
In this brief passage, Mr. Roberts implicitly distances his own institution from “the government” of which it is obviously a part, implies that the court stands outside the processes of governance, and suggests that there is something self-dealing and borderline corrupt about campaign finance laws passed by elected legislatures.
In these same cases, the justices have described nonjudicial political speech in terms that make it sound kind of … icky. It involves “sound bites, talking points and scripted messages that dominate the 24-hour news cycle,” in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words. This sort of speech deserves protection for the same reasons that “flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades” do, in Mr. Roberts’s.
Yet there has been one glaring exception to the majority’s hostility to campaign finance regulations: In the context of state judicial elections, they have upheld restrictions that they would be highly unlikely to tolerate in the context of nonjudicial elections. Tellingly, these cases describe judges in a manner that starkly contrasts with how they have described nonjudicial officeholders.
As Mr. Kennedy put it in a 2009 case about when campaign spending required a state judge to recuse himself, “Precedent and stare decisis and the text and purpose of the law and the Constitution, logic and scholarship and experience and common sense, and fairness and disinterest and neutrality are among the factors at work” when judges consider cases — a far cry from the “sound bites, talking points and scripted messages” of nonjudicial political speech.
And in a 2015 case upholding a Florida law that forbade candidates for judicial office from personally soliciting campaign contributions, Mr. Roberts, anachronistically appealing to the authority of Magna Carta, wrote that judges “cannot supplicate campaign donors without diminishing public confidence in judicial integrity” and concluded that “judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot.”
Mr. Roberts’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, judges are political actors, and striking down federal election laws is an aggressive act of governance by the judiciary. And the justices’ language in these cases, holding up judges as noble instruments of the law and denigrating other officeholders as power-grubbing and superficial, serves to reinforce and justify the notion that they are uniquely qualified to govern us.
On one day in 2020, the court decided two cases dealing with very similar subpoenas for information about President Donald Trump’s financial and business dealings. One set of subpoenas came from congressional committees; the other came from a New York State grand jury.
Mr. Roberts wrote both opinions. In the case dealing with congressional subpoenas, he worried that Congress may aim to “harass the president or render him ‘complaisan[t] to the humors of the legislature.’” Accordingly, the subpoenas must be superintended by the courts, lest the legislature “‘exert an imperious controul’ over the executive branch and aggrandize itself at the president’s expense, just as the framers feared.” (The internal quotations there are from the Federalist Papers to provide a patina of antiquity.) He thus announced a multipart balancing test that applies only when Congress seeks the personal papers of the president.
While that decision made the president a supercitizen vis-à-vis congressional subpoenas, the other opinion emphasized that he is just a regular citizen when it comes to judicial subpoenas. Unlike Congress, apparently, a grand jury requires “all information that might possibly bear on its investigation.” Whereas Mr. Roberts worried about Congress harassing the president, “we generally ‘assume that state courts and prosecutors will observe constitutional limitations.’”
Not only do these opinions stymie congressional oversight — the papers were not handed over to the committees until nearly two years into the Biden administration — they also do so using language that elevates judicial institutions while denigrating legislative ones.
Congress is not alone; administrative agencies also bear the brunt of the justices’ disdain. In a series of recent cases that, for example, struck down the E.P.A.’s clean power plan for addressing climate change, the Republican-appointed justices have invented the so-called major questions doctrine. If they consider an issue major — and they have not told us what makes a question major beyond “vast economic and political significance” or “earnest and profound debate across the country” — then they will not allow an agency to regulate in that manner unless Congress has clearly stated that it may.
To use an analogy: If a majority of justices determine that eating an ice cream cone is a major question, then it is not enough that Congress has empowered the agency to “eat any dessert it chooses.” It must legislate that the agency can “eat any dessert it chooses, including ice cream cones.” But Congress has no way of knowing whether eating an ice cream cone is major until it sees what a majority of justices have to say about it.
In justifying this doctrine, the justices have raised the specter of out-of-control bureaucrats intruding on the liberty of citizens, undermining legal stability, serving only special interests and invading the domain of the states.
You might think that this doctrine is meant to protect congressional power, except that it dictates to Congress how it must legislate, despite the fact that Congress has no way of knowing in advance what issues will be considered major. Moreover, as the legal scholar Beau Baumann has noted, Justice Neil Gorsuch and his colleagues have justified the doctrine on the grounds that Congress is too eager to delegate to agencies in order to avoid political responsibility, so the courts must keep Congress in line. In other words, the justices are paternalistically claiming to protect Congress from itself.
In all of these areas and in plenty more, the justices have seized for themselves an active role in governance. But perhaps even more consequentially, in doing so, they have repeatedly described other political institutions in overwhelmingly derogatory terms while either describing the judiciary in flattering terms or not describing it at all — denying its status as an institution and positioning it as simply a conduit of disembodied law.
This is the ideological foundation for the Roberts-era judicial power grab.
It is also worth noting that this ideological project is bipartisan. Republican-appointed justices dominate the court and have for many decades, but their Democratic-appointed colleagues — while dissenting in many individual opinions — evince no desire to contest the underlying disdain for other institutions or elevation of their own. When Mr. Roberts recently refused to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, nothing stopped Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan or Ketanji Brown Jackson from volunteering to testify, but they did not. Nothing is stopping them from publicly calling for a binding ethics code or from questioning not just the correctness but also the legitimacy of their institution’s assertiveness, but they have not.
Recognizing the justices’ ideological project also points to the beginning of the solution. We ought to begin talking about the justices the way we talk about other political actors — recognizing that their first name is not Justice and that they, like other politicians, should be identified by their party.
We should stop talking about another branch’s potential defiance of a judicial opinion as an attack on “the rule of law” and instead understand it as an attack on rule by judges, one that may (or may not) be a justified response to some act of judicial governance. And those other branches should be more willing — as they have at other moments in American history — to use the tools at their disposal, including cutting the judiciary’s funding, to put the courts in their place.
In recent years, the judiciary has shown little but contempt for other governing institutions. It has earned a little contempt in return.
Josh Chafetz (@joshchafetz) is a law professor at Georgetown and the author of “Congress’s Constitution.” This essay is adapted from a forthcoming article in The St. Louis University Law Journal.
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