Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Nature of Judging at the United States Supreme Court

This week, the United States Supreme Court issued rulings in two cases – Bostock v. Clayton County and Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California ­– that surprised some court observers. In Bostock, the Court held by a 6-3 margin that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.[1] In so holding, the Court, per Justice Neil Gorsuch, held that discrimination on either basis necessarily entailed discrimination on the basis of sex.[2] In Department of Homeland Security, the Court held, by a 5-4 margin (with Chief Justice Roberts joining the Court’s four liberal members), that the manner in which the Trump administration terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) violated the Administrative Procedure Act.[3]

The decisions surprised some court observers. For example, in Bostock, some scholars expected that Justice Gorsuch, who embraces a form of statutory interpretation known as textualism, would hold that the word “sex” as contained in Title VII referred only to discrimination on the basis of biological sex. After all, when Title VII was enacted, legislators neither expressly nor implicitly suggested that sexual orientation or gender identity came within the purview of sex-based discrimination. Likewise, in Department of Homeland Security, some scholars expected that Chief Justice Roberts would uphold the Trump administration’s decision.

So what is going here? In short, the answer is that the justices rely on extralegal factors when making decisions and those factors explain why decision-making at the Court is not, as Justice Elena Kagan once stated, “law all the way down.”[4]

Below is a brief summary of several factors that may – and likely do – influence the Court’s decision-making process.

I.    Concerns for institutional legitimacy matter – particularly for Chief Justice John Roberts

The Court is undoubtedly – and rightfully – concerned with its institutional legitimacy. Indeed, inspiring public confidence in the Court’s decision-making process, which includes cultivating the perception that the justices are neutral arbiters of the law, is essential to maintaining the Court’s legitimacy and credibility. For that reason, the Court is understandably reluctant to issue decisions that are inconsistent with precedent, overly broad, politically unpopular, and unnecessarily divisive. Put simply, the Court is dedicated to preserving its status as an independent legal institution that is neither influenced by nor concerned with political ideology.

Some court observers posit that Chief Justice Roberts is particularly concerned with preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy. For example, Roberts’s desire to avoid 5-4 decisions (to the extent possible) and refrain from deciding socially and politically divisive cases underscores his commitment to the Court’s legitimacy. In fact, concerns for institutional legitimacy arguably motivated, at least in part, Chief Justice Roberts’s decision in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, where he upheld the Affordable Care Act on the basis that the Act’s individual mandate constituted a permissible tax.[5]

But the desire to protect the Court’s institutional legitimacy is a questionable basis for judicial decision-making. Simply put, it is difficult to identify the criteria or circumstances in which a specific outcome will preserve, rather than undermine, the Court’s legitimacy. For example, in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice Roberts voted with the Court’s conservative members to invalidate portions of the Voting Rights Act, which was a politically and publicly unpopular decision.[6] And despite the increasing public and political support for same-sex marriage, Chief Justice Roberts dissented in Obergefell v. Hodges, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution did not encompass a right to same-sex marriage.[7] Reasonable people would certainly disagree regarding whether these decisions protected the Court’s legitimacy.

Such disagreement highlights the problem when placing emphasis on institutional legitimacy as a basis for rendering decisions. To begin with, the concept of institutional legitimacy can be defined differently. For example, does a decision further the Court’s institutional legitimacy if it is consistent with public opinion or the policy predilections of legislators? Do concerns for institutional legitimacy require the Court to adopt an originalist philosophy or, at the very least, ensure that its decisions are consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution’s text? Does the Court’s institutional legitimacy depend on whether the outcome is considered just and fair? These questions highlight the problem: preserving institutional legitimacy depends on each justice’s subjective view of what decisions (and interpretative) methods achieve that goal. For that reason, an exclusive or predominant focus on preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy can inadvertently undermine the very legitimacy that the justices seek to preserve.

II.    Ideology matters – for conservative and liberal justices

For both conservative and liberal justices, ideological considerations and policy predilections influence their decision-making process. Of course, this is not true in every case, as many cases do not implicate ideological considerations to a significant degree or require the application of other principles, such as stare decisis, that constrain a justice’s ability to predicate a decision on ideology alone.

However, in politically or socially divisive cases, such as those involving affirmative action, abortion, the death penalty, or the right to bear arms, ideology arguably plays a role. Indeed, a substantial body of research suggests that the justices render decisions that are consistent with their political beliefs. Perhaps for this reason, in some cases, lawyers and scholars can accurately predict how the justices will rule. For example, the Court’s four liberal justices will almost always abortion restrictions. The Court’s most conservative justices will often be unreceptive to arguments that the imposition of the death penalty in a given case violates the Eighth Amendment. Justice Sotomayor will almost certainly be hostile to challenges to affirmative action programs and Justice Alito will almost certainly be receptive to such challenges. Justice Ginsburg will almost certainly invalidate restrictions on abortion access while Justice Thomas will almost certainly uphold such restrictions. Not surprisingly, these outcomes align perfectly with the justices’ policy and political preferences.

Of course, a substantial portion of the Court’s cases are decided unanimously, and, as stated above, in many cases, ideology is not implicated to a substantial degree. But make no mistake: ideology does influence at least a portion of the Court’s decisions.

III.    Bias matters – for both liberal and conservative justices

Social science research suggests that bias affects liberal and conservative justices and that this bias reflects, in part, each justice’s personal background and experience. For example, gender bias is prevalent in criminal sentencing, as men often receive harsher sentences than women.[8] In fact, “the sentencing disparities among gender are some of the most visible and persistent sentencing disparities in this country.”[9] Additionally, African-American defendants often receive harsher sentences than white defendants.[10] As one scholar explains:

[T]he body of research on the potential for invidious biases in judges arising from reliance on emotion or implicit stereotypes supports a troubling conclusion: Judges do not easily set such extralegal matters aside. The feelings and biases that influence most adults seem to also affect judges.[11]

Of course, this research should not suggest that the justices are motivated primarily or even secondarily by explicit or implicit bias. It does suggest, however, that the justices, like all individuals, are susceptible to confirmation bias, which is an “effort to seek out information that is consistent with one’s prior beliefs, while ignoring or avoiding information that could refute them.”[12] In so doing, the potential for reaching an improper result increase substantially.

IV. `Emotion matters – it’s not, as Justice Elena Kagan once stated, “Law all the way down”

Empirical research demonstrates that a judge’s emotions matter in the decision-making process. To be sure, a “series of experiments with hundreds of judges from numerous jurisdictions concluded that emotions influence how judges interpret law when evaluating hypothetical cases.”[13] As researchers explain:

[J]udicial reliance on emotion in decision making can be defensible. Judges should temper their application of law and logic with expressions of compassion and empathy. Indeed, one set of studies finds that judges seem to largely ignore apologies in both civil and criminal cases, making the judges seem overly dispassionate. [Studies in other contexts], however, go well beyond a sensible level of compassion. No one can defend taking a football loss out on juveniles, setting lower bail for more attractive litigants, or treating Muslim litigants differently after 9/11. Nevertheless, these studies show judges to be vulnerable to several such untoward influences.[14]

Emotion would certainly seem relevant because, in many cases, a constitutional or statutory provision is susceptible to different interpretations, and because judges probably want to reach what they believe is the most equitable and fair result.

V.    Intuition matters

Studies show that, in some instances, judges base decisions in large part on intuition, rather than on evidence or empirical data. Indeed, “[i]n one study, 160 federal judges evaluating a hypothetical case neglected statistical evidence in favor of intuition in the assessment of negligence.”[15] As one study demonstrated, “judges rely heavily on intuitive reasoning to evaluate legal disputes,” “use simple mental shortcuts to guide how they think about legal materials,” and “do not improve with experience or specialization.”[16] In fact, the “excessive reliance on an intuitive response” is responsible in substantial part for the prevalence of confirmation bias.

***

Ultimately, the relevant research on judging suggests that judges strive to achieve what they believe is the fairest and most just result. Put differently, judges do not necessarily reach decisions based on what they are compelled to do but based on what they are able to do in a given case. This supports the proposition that judging is strategic and personal, not merely legal. For that reason, law students and advocates should consider the influence of the above factors when developing and making legal arguments. Judges, including the justices on the Supreme Court, are human beings and judging is a human enterprise.

 

[1] See 590 U.S. ___ , 2020 WL 3146686.

[2] See id.

[3] See 590 U.S. ___, available at: https://d2qwohl8lx5mh1.cloudfront.net/Xpikua_BIGWtET0SEU1fDQ/content.

[4] Josh Blackmun, Kagan- Law All The Way Down, Stephen Hawking- Turtles All The Way Down (2010), available at: http://joshblackman.com/blog/2010/06/30/kagan-law-all-the-way-down-stephen-hawkingng-turtles-all-the-way-down/.

[5] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[6] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[7] 576 U.S. 644 (2015).

[8] See id.

[9] Id. at 28 (internal citation omitted).

[10] Id. at 29.

[11] Id. at 32.

[12] Id. at 16.

[13] Id. at 24.

[14] Id. at 27.

[15] Id. at 14.

[16] Id. at 21.

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