Ideological lines turn out to be more fluid than partisans had imagined when Barrett was named.
By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman
July 1, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal
‘Every time a new justice comes to the Supreme Court,” Justice Byron White used to say, “it’s a different court.” Activists expected that to be especially true when Justice Amy Coney Barrett arrived last year. The leftist pressure group Demand Justice denounced the nominee to succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “a far-right, activist judge whose confirmation would threaten to upend the lives of millions of Americans” and predicted her vote would doom ObamaCare.
Reality is seldom so simplistic. ObamaCare survived California v. Texas with a 7-2 majority, including Justice Barrett. Of the 65 cases the court reviewed this term, it decided only nine by 6-3 votes along conventional ideological lines, and only three of those could fairly be described as involving hot-button political controversies. One was Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, which held that a California labor regulation requiring agricultural employers to allow labor organizers on their property constituted “a per se physical taking” for which the employers were entitled to just compensation. The others were decided on Thursday as the term ended: Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee on election regulation and Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta on forced disclosure of nonprofit donors.
Yet it’s true the court has entered a new phase—one characterized by modest conservative victories, unpredictable alignments of justices, and surprising unanimous judgments. The driving forces are doctrinal differences among the court’s six conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts’s preference for incremental rather than sweeping change, and the embrace across ideological lines of the principle that judges should follow the language of the law. As Justice Elena Kagan said in 2015, “We’re all textualists now.”
The same day the court ruled in favor of ObamaCare, it unanimously held that Philadelphia had violated the First Amendment by decreeing that a Catholic foster-care agency couldn’t operate in the city unless it certified gay couples. The deeper issue was the fate of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), a landmark decision holding that generally applicable laws burdening religious practice don’t violate free exercise, no matter that the burden may be great and the government’s interest slight.
In Fulton v. Philadelphia, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch voted to overturn Smith. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion for the other six justices didn’t go that far, but it remade the doctrine by holding that religious conduct must be treated no worse than equivalent secular conduct. That means a law isn’t “generally applicable” under Smith if it permits secular exceptions.
Fulton is a victory mainly for the chief justice’s incrementalism, which has its virtues—among them that it makes the court’s rulings easier for the losing side to accept. It’s no small matter that the court was able to rule unanimously for religious freedom in a case widely expected to be contentious. At the same time, Fulton makes Smith easier to overturn by weakening its rationale and reliance on its sweeping rule. In a concurrence, Justices Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh suggested they are open to doing so.
Fulton wasn’t the only surprising show of unanimity. In Caniglia v. Strom, all nine justices rejected a “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements for home searches—a case that might have splintered on concerns about gun violence or the needs of law enforcement. Twice the court unanimously overruled immigration decisions from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals favoring aliens; one of those decisions was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Other unanimous decisions rejected expansion of recent sentencing reductions for crack offenders, authorized money damages against state officials who violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, limited human-rights suits premised on foreign conduct, recognized First Amendment protection for a public-school student’s out-of-school speech, and declined to tighten jurisdictional limits on suits against major corporations. (So much for claims that the Roberts Court is in thrall to big business.)
Behind much of this agreement is the court’s convergence on textualism, the method of interpretation Justice Antonin Scalia advocated as a corrective to judicial policy making. The two unanimous immigration cases, as well as the crack-sentencing one, elevated clear statutory text over policy arguments. Likely the court’s outnumbered liberals have come to realize that only textualist reasoning can achieve a majority on today’s court.
There’s an asymmetry to this. Liberal justices’ methodological flexibility enables them to vote strategically with whichever conservative colleagues favor the most congenial result. Conservatives justices tend to be exacting on questions of text and doctrine, which can split their votes even when they agree on central issues or approach. Yet political conservatives can take heart from the court’s actions this term—and look optimistically toward the next. The justices agreed to hear cases in the 2021-22 term that give them opportunities to scale back precedents on abortion and expand them on gun rights.
The clearest area of positive reform this term concerns Congress’s attempts to shield executive-branch agencies from presidential control and democratic accountability. In U.S. v. Arthrex, the court found a constitutional violation in a scheme authorizing patent judges to render decisions free from review by the head of the Patent and Trademark Office, an officer subject to presidential oversight. In Collins v. Yellen, it held unconstitutional a restriction on presidential removal of the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The court invalidated only the offensive restrictions. But that limited remedy overcomes the principal objection—“widespread disruption”—to restoring presidential control by overruling the entire line of cases that authorize the headless “fourth branch” of government. That has been a central goal of the conservative legal movement since the 1970s.
To be sure, incrementalism can go too far. Some of the chief justice’s opinions, including Arthrex, are so carefully hedged that the rules they announce are little more than that one party prevailed and the other lost. A similar complaint can be leveled at Justice Stephen Breyer’s 8-1 opinion in the student-speech case Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., which provides little guidance for lower courts or school administrators. Justice Alito offered more in a concurrence, but only Justice Gorsuch joined it. Likewise, Justice Breyer’s opinion in the ObamaCare case declined to rule on the merits, holding instead the challenges lacked standing yet without addressing their central argument to the contrary.
All these opinions were assigned by the chief justice and joined in full by his most junior colleagues, Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett. They are rightly concerned about overreaching and appear resolved in each case to decide no more than need be decided. Judicial restraint is essential and admirable, but clarity about the law is necessary for the rule of law to function. As the new justices gain confidence, the court should strike a truer balance.
Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.