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John Roberts' Supreme Court Is the Most Meddlesome in U.S. History

How radical libertarianism is reshaping the bench

Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

For the third straight July, the Supreme Court left court-watchers scratching their heads about whether the Court lived up to its reputation as the “most conservative” in generations, if not ever. In the New York Times, former Obama Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal hailed “The Supreme Court’s Powerful New Consensus.” Liberal experts tended to echo Slate’s Emily Bazelon in dismissing such revisionists as hoodwinked by “the devastating, sneaky genius of John Roberts’ [superficially anodyne but right-tilting] opinions.”  

What strikes me is a libertarian streak in the justices' opinions. On civil liberties, where right- and left-leaning libertarians concur—in particular, Fourth Amendment protection for smartphones—the Court moved the law to the left. But, likewise reflecting libertarian ascendance, the Court continues to veer sharply right on issues touching on corporate autonomy and regulation of business. Most importantly, this term’s cases confirm a critical but generally overlooked facet of twenty-first century libertarian jurisprudence. It is not just about reclaiming what Randy Barnett famously called the “lost Constitution.” Less visibly but often more consequentially, libertarian academics, advocates, and judges have long advocated thrusting the courts into much more aggressive roles in resolving the details of messy non-constitutional disputes—in interpreting statutes, and, in particular, in scrutinizing and micro-managing executive and regulatory agencies’ applications of the laws they administer. Here, the not-always-tacit agenda has been to gum up the works of progressive programs that, realistically, cannot be repealed or invalidated outright.    

A window onto this Court's reactionary drift opened during a testy exchange at an oral argument six months ago on January 21. The case was Harris v. Quinn, which involved a challenge to the authority of state governments to permit public employee unions to collect fees covering the costs of negotiating on behalf of non-members they are legally required to represent. Choosing her words pointedly, Justice Elena Kagan questioned the challenging non-members’ counsel:

Since 1948, since the Taft-Hartley Act, there has been a debate in every State across this country about whether to be a right-to-work State, and people have disagreed. ... And is it fair to say that you’re suggesting here ... that, for 64 years, people have been debating the wrong question ...  because, in fact, a right-to-work law is constitutionally compelled? (emphasis added)

The challengers’ counsel, a staff attorney for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, did not flinch. “In the public sector,” he responded, “Yes, ... compulsory fees are illegal under the First Amendment.” 

When the Court finally released its decision, on the final day of the term, June 30, it did not exactly dial back those 64 years, at least not for all public workers and workplaces nationwide. Justice Alito’s 5-4 majority decision barred the imposition of union fees on non-members, but only with regard to a novel category he created—“personal homecare assistants,” or nurses and other providers paid by state governments with Medicaid funds, to treat disabled and poor elderly patients in their homes.

But what matters about this case is not the answer the conservative majority gave on its particular facts, but the question they chose to answer. As Justice Kagan noted, that question—whether state (or federal) law can authorize public employee unions to distribute the costs of representation across all employees in a bargaining unit, while requiring the union to represent non-union members as well as members—had for generations been completely off the table. The conservative majority has put that fundamental understanding in play, by transmuting the First Amendment—heretofore understood as a safeguard for civil liberties—into a functional regulator of economic relations, and de-stabilizing nearly three quarters of a century of constitutional precedents. These precedents are not technicalities. On the contrary, were the case-law otherwise, all employees, union members as well as non-members, would have every incentive to “free-ride,” and reap the benefits of union representation without sharing in the costs. Public employee unionism would be weakened, if not crippled.

The doctrinal counter-revolution is not be confined to labor-management relations. Prior to the New Deal, the Supreme Court pushed an anti-regulatory agenda in the name of safeguarding individuals' economic liberty. The FDR Court repudiated this tradition in a 1938 decision about milk regulation, United States v. Carolene Products. Carolene Products laid down a landmark a rule: Economic regulatory legislation “is not to be pronounced unconstitutional unless, in the light of the facts made known or generally assumed, it is of such a character as to preclude the assumption that it rests upon some rational basis within the knowledge and experience of the legislators. Harris v. Quinn flagrantly violates that rule. States surely have a “rational basis” for ensuring fair-share contributions from non-union public employees. 

After 1938, through the balance of the twentieth century, and, indeed, well into the twenty-first, Supreme Court majorities never overtly and, only rarely, departed from or implicitly challenged the hands-off economic regulation mandate of rational basis deference. Of course, during those decades, there were recurrent, fiery right-left battles on and about the Supreme Court. But those battles were about the extent to which the Court should actively protect individual civil and political rights, not economic rights. Only a small cadre of libertarian academics and think tanks disputed the consensus confining economic liberty to second-class constituitonal status. No more. No longer marginalized, libertarian-inspired legal ideas are now a force to be reckoned with. That tectonic shift was first proclaimed two years ago in the Court’s opinions in the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and expansion of Medicaid, even though Chief Justice John Roberts’ controlling opinion largely upheld the law. This term’s decisions reinforce that trend. 

Although Harris v. Quinn invoked the Constitution to trump an incontestably rational regulatory law, other important decisions about regulation and the economy this term involved ordinarily below-the-radar questions of statutory interpretation and judicial deference to agency decisions. And libertarian academics’ and advocates’ enthusiasm for replacing Carolene Products-style rational basis deference with active judicial micro-management left an imprint in nearly all of them. For example, reviewing the first tranche of President Obama’s global warming program, Justice Scalia, writing for a seven-member majority, struck down the regulation at issue, and castigated EPA for reading an exception into an assertedly “unambiguous” statutory provision. But the Court then read a similar exception into another statutory term, that yielded 97 percent of the on-the-ground results the agency’s version would have achieved. How could EPA’s version have no defensibly rational basis, and why would the justices not simply defer, if it differed so immaterially from theirs?The answer seems to be that Scalia and his colleagues felt it important to assert their power to substitute their judgment for the agency’s—EPA or any other agency—almost for the sake of doing so.

Similarly, in its two decisions reviewing Affordable Care Act contraception regulations, the conservative majority second-guessed extraordinarily granular Executive Branch policy and factual determinations, substituting their own ideas for configuring a compromise to mesh competing policy goals attributed to two statutes, the ACA and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The majority suggested that alternative administrative solutions were readily available, that would, consistent with the Court’s orders, permit employees and students, in institutions averse to including contraception coverage in their health insurance plans, “to obtain, without cost, the full range of FDA approved contraceptives.” Dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and many health experts, vehemently disagreed. The lasting lesson from these cases is not which side is right, but that the conservative justices are so eager to reach to tackle these policy and factual kerfuffles at all. Such judicial intrusions, into the nitty-gritty of implementing complex, often conflicting statutory provisions, mock landmark decisions—by the Rehnquist Court no less than its more liberal predecessors—that long enforced and repeatedly reaffirmed the post-New Deal consensus mandating judicial restraint and deference to Congressional and Executive legislative and policy judgments.  

Looking to the future, most of the battles over preserving the progressive jurisprudence that kept hostile judges from crippling the New Deal, the Great Society, and—so far—the major products of President Barack Obama’s tenure, could well be fought on these non-constitutional fronts. Already, some observers have noted that in several end-of-term opinions, justices on both sides of the Court’s ideological divide have sparred elaborately about methodologies for interpreting statutes and reviewing agency actions. Could these academic-seeming debates constitute “shadow-boxing” over potential high-voltage controversies that could wind up on next year’s docket and beyond? A particular target for speculation in this vein, especially on the right, is a brace of pending cases currently poised for decision in two courts of appeal, in which ACA opponents hope to shut down They claim that a four-word phrase in the Act must be read in isolation, to permit only state-run exchanges, not federally run exchanges in the 36 states that have opted out of setting up exchanges of their own, to provide tax credits and subsidies for low and moderate income applicants for health insurance. So far, that claim has been rejected by the two district courts yet to rule, as contrary to what even Justice Scalia, in his Clean Air Act global warming decision opinion this June, acknowledged as the “fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.” Much could depend on whether Justice Scalia and the rest of his conservative colleagues choose to take that “fundamental canon” seriously, if and when the fate of Obamacare is once again on their griddle.