Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, October 2, 2021

A Six-Vote Supermajority Requirement is the Solution to De-Politicizing the United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court is struggling to maintain its institutional legitimacy. A recent poll showed that only 40% of Americans approved of the Court.[1] Three factors arguably explain the reasons underlying the public’s negative perception of the Court.

1.    Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts is a brilliant and accomplished jurist, and by all accounts a good person. But Roberts has contributed substantially to the Court’s compromised legitimacy. This might appear surprising at first glance, considering that Roberts cares deeply about preserving the Court’s legitimacy and is dedicated to ensuring that the Court is not viewed as a political institution.

Sadly, that very concern is precisely what has politicized the Court. The reason is that, in many cases, Roberts decides cases not based on a reasonable interpretation of a constitutional or statutory provision, but on what he believes will preserve the Court’s legitimacy, which essentially means that Roberts decides cases based on how he subjectively believes the public will react.

The problem with that approach should be obvious. It completely divorces the justices from the law, and from their obligation to reach outcomes based on a reasonable interpretation of constitutional and statutory text. In so doing, it enables nine unelected, life-tenured justices to reach outcomes based on their subjective views regarding what outcomes will be viewed as politically “legitimate.” The result is that the Court’s decisions are ipso facto political.

Roberts has been a disappointment on the Court. His approach betrays the rule of law and the judicial role. Put differently, when the justices base decisions on the desire to appear apolitical, they inherently politicize the Court. And Chief Justice Roberts is the Court’s most political actor.   

2.    The Shadow Docket

The Court’s shadow docket, in which it decides cases and important legal issues without oral argument. For example, in Whole Women’s Health, et al. v. Jackson, the petitioners applied for an order enjoining enforcement of a law in Texas that banned all abortions after six weeks, and that gave private citizens, not the government, the power to enforce the law. The Court denied the application, holding that it did not satisfy the standards required for granting a preliminary injunction. Although this interpretation was not incorrect, it showed that the Court couldn’t see the forest from the trees.

Any person with a pulse would recognize that, whatever one’s views on abortion, the law obviously violated the Court’s poorly-reasoned decisions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, both of which manipulated the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause to hold that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy before viability (i.e., approximately twenty-four weeks). Thus, because Texas’s law was so ridiculous, the Court should have voted unanimously to invalidate the law. Had the Court done so, it would have sent the message that the justices are not motivated by their policy preferences.  Instead, five members of the Court held that the Petitioner failed to satisfy the standards required for granting injunctive relief and allowed the law to go into effect. It should come as no surprise that the usual suspects – those who are almost certainly pro-life – signed onto this decision (Alito, Barrett, Kavanaugh, Thomas, Gorsuch).

So, when the justices express surprise and indignation that the Court is viewed as a political institution and claim that decisions are not based on the policy predilections, it is hard not to laugh.

3.    The Justices’ Political Views

If you believe that the justices don’t base their decisions on personal policy predilections, then you probably believe that the United States faked the moon landing or that most law schools are deeply committed to ideological diversity.

Think about it: could you imagine Justice Sotomayor ever invalidating an affirmative action program? Could you ever imagine Justice Thomas or Justice Alito relying on stare decisis to uphold Roe and Planned Parenthood? Could you ever imagine Justice Kagan supporting restrictions on same-sex marriage? No.

And don’t be fooled when the justices claim that their decisions reflect differences in interpretive philosophies. Uh-huh. It’s interesting – and amazingly convenient – that the justices’ interpretive philosophies so often comport with their policy preferences. That isn’t an accident.

This fact does not make the justices bad people. It just means that they are human. It means that their personal views impact their decisions, which is precisely why it is so critical for the Court to base their decisions on a reasonable interpretation of constitutional or statutory text. It is why the Court should refuse to hear most cases where the Constitution is silent or ambiguous, and instead defer to the democratic and political process. Doing so minimizes the risk that personal preferences will triumph over the law, and decreases the likelihood that constitutional meaning will depend on whether the Court’s majority is comprised of liberals or conservatives.  

Otherwise, justices will feel free to roam unconstrained in the Constitution’s penumbras,  seeking to discover new rights that reflect the “heady days of the here and now.”[2] That approach, which the Court has embraced at times, explains in substantial part why the public doesn’t view the Court favorably.

The Solution

Chief Justice Roberts is not the solution. Expanding the Court, for obvious reasons, is not the solution. The solution is to require a six-vote supermajority to affirm or reverse a lower court decision.

This solution would have several benefits that would preserve the Court’s legitimacy, protect the separation of powers, and promote democratic choice regarding issues upon which the Constitution is silent. Specifically, 5-4 decisions have been and continue to be the source of substantial disagreement and division. The Court’s decisions in National Federation of Independent v. Sebelius, Obergefell v. Hodges, Shelby County v. Holder, and Bush v. Gore are perfect examples. A six-vote majority would reduce the frequency with which the Court issues divisive, controversial – and politicized – decisions.

Furthermore, requiring a six-vote majority would almost certainly lead to incremental, rather than drastic, changes in the law and minimize the risk that the Court’s decisions will be perceived as political and illegitimate. To achieve a six-vote majority, the justices would be forced to compromise and reach a middle ground concerning decisions that affect, among other things, civil rights and liberties. As such, the influence of ideology or policy preferences in the decision-making process would likely be minimized.

Finally, a six-vote majority might incentivize litigants to stop seeking social change through the courts and instead concentrate their efforts on effecting change through the legislature. Doing so would limit the Court’s power in a principled way. The Court would still decide cases that involved violations of specific constitutional or statutory guarantees, but a six-vote majority requirement would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Court to create rights based on implausible interpretations of the Constitution and thus engender public backlash. 

Without principled reforms, the public perception of the Court will likely remain negative, and with several controversial issues on its current docket, the Court’s legitimacy is likely to go anywhere but up.

 

[1] See Jeffrey M. Jones, Approval of Supreme Court Down to 40%, A New Low (Sep. 23, 2021), available at: Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (gallup.com)

[2] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

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