Linda Greenhouse is an astute observers of the U.S. Supreme Court, so when I see her byline on an article, I read it carefully. Last Sunday, she provided an 18-year overview of the Roberts Court,— providing readers with a chilling description of what Americans have lost since John Roberts assumed the position of Chief Justice.
Greenhouse noted that the just-completed term was in many respects the capstone of Roberts’ 18-year tenure. As she writes,
To understand today’s Supreme Court, to see it whole, demands a longer timeline. To show why, I offer a thought experiment. Suppose a modern Rip Van Winkle went to sleep in September 2005 and didn’t wake up until last week. Such a person would awaken in a profoundly different constitutional world, a world transformed, term by term and case by case, at the Supreme Court’s hand.
When Roberts joined the Court, Greenhouse says there was a “robust conservative wish list.” She then enumerates the items on that wish list: overturning Roe v. Wade, reinterpreting the Second Amendment in order to turn gun ownership into a constitutional right, the elimination of race-based affirmative action in university admissions, the elevation of religion within the legal landscape (Greenhouse doesn’t say it, but what was wanted was the elevation of Christianity–not just “religion”)–and a drastic reduction of federal agencies’ regulatory power.
Despite the fact that William Rehnquist, the prior Chief Justice, was a committed conservative, the Court had not accomplished a single one of those goals. Greenhouse describes the case decisions that had failed to accomplish that conservative wish list– establishing precedents that would seem to preclude their realization.
That was how the world looked on Sept. 29, 2005, when Chief Justice Roberts took the oath of office, less than a month after the death of his mentor, Chief Justice Rehnquist. And this year? By the time the sun set on June 30, the term’s final day, every goal on the conservative wish list had been achieved. All of it. To miss that remarkable fact is to miss the story of the Roberts court.
t’s worth reviewing how the court accomplished each of the goals. It deployed a variety of tools and strategies. Precedents that stood in the way were either repudiated outright, as the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision did last year to Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, or were simply rendered irrelevant — abandoned, in the odd euphemism the court has taken to using. In its affirmative action decision declaring race-conscious university admissions to be unconstitutional, Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion did not overturn the 2003 Grutter decision explicitly. But Justice Thomas was certainly correct in his concurring opinion when he wrote that it was “clear that Grutter is, for all intents and purposes, overruled.”
Likewise, the court has not formally overruled its Chevron decision. Its administrative-law decisions have just stopped citing that 1984 precedent as authority. The justices have simply replaced Chevron’s rule of judicial deference with its polar opposite, a new rule that goes by the name of the major questions doctrine. Under this doctrine, the court will uphold an agency’s regulatory action on a major question only if Congress’s grant of authority to the agency on the particular issue was explicit. Deference, in other words, is now the exception, no longer the rule.
Lawyers point out that the major questions doctrine was invented out of whole cloth; it is certainly nowhere to be found in the Constitution or prior case law. Greenhouse notes its utility to a rogue Court: “how to tell a major question from an ordinary one? No surprise there: The court itself will decide….it’s hard to envision an issue important and contentious enough to make it to the Supreme Court not being regarded as major by justices who flaunt their skepticism of the administrative state.”
You really need to click through and read the entire essay, because Greenhouse does a masterful job of explaining the disingenuous reasoning that allowed the Court’s majority to impose its reactionary policy preferences while ignoring “settled” law.
The web designer case was among the most egregious:
The court has created a religious opt-out from compliance with laws that govern the commercial marketplace…. [Gorsuch’s] opinion cites many First Amendment precedents, including the right not to salute the flag, the right of private parade organizers not to include a gay organization among the marchers and the right of the Boy Scouts not to retain a gay scoutmaster.
But none of those precedents are relevant, because none involved discrimination by a commercial entity.
The essay concludes that the Court “has become this country’s ultimate political prize… from the perspective of 18 years, that conclusion is as unavoidable as it is frightening.”
Absent a Blue wave in 2024, it will only get worse.