Jeffrey Rosen’s op ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend, The Trial of John Roberts, echoes a theme noted by a number of commentators, one on which I posted last week: that the Supreme Court’s decision to open up long-settled law with respect to regulating corporate expenditures in candidate elections in the recently argued Citizens United case is a quintessential exercise in judicial activism. And it’s the kind of judicial activism that then nominee John Roberts pretended to foreswear through his claims to be an umpire, simply calling balls and strikes.
Where I part company from Rosen, however, is in his analysis that Chief Justice Roberts “deserves credit for trying” to forge a broader consensus on narrower grounds, citing, in particular, last term’s Voting Rights Act case. The cynic in me says that the decision was 8-1 to uphold Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and not 5-4 to overturn it, because the Chief Justice simply did not yet have the votes to do so. And Rosen’s reliance on greater unanimity on the Court with respect to upholding business interests – according to the Chamber 79% of these cases decided on margins of 7-2 better – is not, in my view, a reflection of Chief Justice Roberts’ forging consensus on narrow grounds. It’s a reflection of how conservative this Court really is, why the judicial philosophy of the next nominee to the Supreme Court really matters, and why it’s important to begin having that discussion now.