The Horror: What a Republican President Could Mean for the Supreme Court
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For anyone considering the 2012 election’s importance to the future of the American judiciary, one fact stands out: next November, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be seventy-nine years old. If a Republican wins the presidential election, he or she may have an opportunity to seat Ginsburg’s successor, replacing the Supreme Court’s most reliably liberal jurist with a conservative. That would mean that the Court—currently balanced almost elegantly between four liberals, four conservatives, and the moderate conservative Anthony Kennedy—would finally tilt decisively to the right, thereby fulfilling Edwin Meese’s dream, laid out in his famous 1985 speech before the American Bar Association, of reshaping the Court around one coherent “jurisprudence of original intention.” Meese, who was then Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, wanted nine conservative constitutional originalists on the Court. He may soon get his wish. A 2008 study by Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge, and William Landes, a law professor at the University of Chicago, examined the voting records of seventy years of Supreme Court justices in order to rank the forty-three justices who have served on the Court since 1937. They concluded that four of the five most conservative justices to serve on the Supreme Court since 1937 sit on the Supreme Court today. Justice Clarence Thomas ranked first.
Kennedy, who is ranked tenth in that study, will be seventy- six next November. If a Republican successor of Obama gets to replace both Kennedy and Ginsburg, it’s fair to predict that the Roberts Court may include five or even six of the most conservative jurists since the FDR era. Following the ideological disappointment that was David Souter, Republicans have been spectacularly successful in selecting and confirming justices who consistently vote for conservative outcomes. Indeed, the replacement of moderate Sandra Day O’Connor with Samuel Alito may have produced the most consequential shift at the Court in our lifetimes; in a few short years O’Connor’s pragmatic legal doctrine in areas ranging from abortion to affirmative action to campaign finance reform has been displaced by rulings that would make Edwin Meese’s heart sing.
But it’s not just the Supreme Court that would tilt further right. The high court only hears seventy-some cases each year. The vast majority of disputes are resolved by the federal appellate courts, which are the last stop for almost every federal litigant in the country. And the one legacy of which George W. Bush can be most proud is his fundamental transformation of the lower federal judiciary—a change that happened almost completely undetected by the left. At a Federalist Society meeting in 2008, Bush boasted that he had seated more than a third of the federal judges expected to be serving when he left office, most of them younger and more conservative than their colleagues, all tenured for life and in control of the majority of the federal circuit courts of appeals. The consequences of that change at the appeals court level were as profound as they were unnoticed. As Charlie Savage of the New York Times put it at the time, the Bush judges “have been more likely than their colleagues to favor corporations over regulators and people alleging discrimination, and to favor government over people who claim rights violations. They have also been more likely to throw out cases on technical grounds, like rejecting plaintiffs’ standing to sue.” In short, they have copied and amplified the larger trends at the Roberts Court: a jurisprudence that skews pro-business, pro-life, anti-environment, and toward entangling the church with the state. Under the rhetorical banners of “modesty” and “humility” and “strict construction,” the rightward shift has done more to restore a pre-New Deal legal landscape than any legislative or policy change might have done.