Special Issue Constitutional Politics in a Conservative Era: Volume 44

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(11 chapters)

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This chapter offers an explanation for the mixed record of the Supreme Court since the 1960s, and considers the implications of that record for the future. The chapter emphasizes that judicial power is connected to choices made by other political actors. We argue that conventional ways of measuring the impact of Court rulings and the Court's treatment of precedents are misleading. The Court cannot be understood as a counter-majoritarian protector of rights. In both past and future, electoral outcomes determine the policy areas in which the Court will be influential, and also the choices the justices make about how to portray their treatment of law and precedents.

This chapter addresses commentary about constitutional law and politics in this current era of a conservative domination of the judiciary.1 Its primary concern is the different ways in which a working majority on the Court and its judiciary of appointees by Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush might be conservative,2 and the different ways in which domination might take place.3 The frame for the chapter is what I call an “indifference thesis” for analyzing constitutional law and politics. Stated boldly, the thesis is that there should be a commentary distinguished by an interpretive attitude that distrusts, and intentionally resists, analysis based on preconceived notions about the strengths and weaknesses of any constitutional law and politics, be it conservative or left-liberal.4 Perhaps, to many readers, an indifference thesis for commentary appears methodologically odd, if not politically perverse. Therefore, the first order of business is to try to make the thesis less odd and perverse by explaining its provenance and attributes.5

Popular constitutionalists seek to recover the popular sovereignty foundations of American constitutionalism, bringing the people in as active participants in the constitutional enterprise as they create and refashion the Constitution by “majoritarian and populist mechanisms” (Amar, 1995, p. 89). The result is to recover an understanding, in FDR's words, of constitution as a “layman's document, not a lawyer's contract” (Kramer, 2004, p. 207). This understanding has deep roots in American constitutionalism, tracing its lineage back to the founding and, as popular constitutionalists insist, finds powerful expression in the likes of The Federalist and Abraham Lincoln (Ackerman, 1991; Tushnet, 1998). In exercising popular sovereignty, the people founded the Constitution, but they did not simply retreat from the trajectory of constitutional development. Rather, as Bruce Ackerman argues, since the Constitution of 1787 the people have spoken in a manner that has re-founded the Constitution giving us a “multiple origins originalism” (Kersch, 2006a, p. 801; see also Amar, 1998 and 2005). In turning to founding era thought and the notion of constitutional foundations, popular constitutionalists like Ackerman and Amar make common cause with conservatives who turn to original intent, but then they seek to synthesize this understanding with democratic expressions of popular will by emphasizing both formal and informal constitutional change, giving us layered “foundings,” and a more complex version of “living constitutionalism.” Such constitutional change, however, can only legitimately come from an authentic expression of “We the People.”

Fifty years ago the political scientist Robert Dahl concluded that courts are usually in sync with “the policy views dominant among the lawmaking majorities” and thus offer little help to aggrieved minorities (Dahl, 1957, p. 285). In recent years, Dahl's classic formulation has received renewed attention. This chapter uses the example of the Rehnquist Court's First Amendment decisions to analyze “regime politics” theory. On religion cases the Rehnquist Court was generally in sync with the socially conservative strain in the Republican Party, but in other First Amendment areas the pattern is far more complex, raising questions about the relationship between conservative judges and the political movements that brought them to office.

The premise that the U.S. Supreme Court never veers too far off from the dominant national political coalition (Dahl, 1957) has become widely accepted among social scientists today. To fulfill that promise, however, the confirmation process for justices must serve as a plebiscite through which the public can ratify or reject future justices based on their views. Unfortunately, modern confirmation hearings have become an exercise in obfuscation, providing little meaningful dialogue on important issues. Because conservative Republican presidents have made the lion's share of appointments in recent times, social conservatives have most often benefited from a process that has severed the link between Supreme Court nominees and the polity they must serve.

Legalists and social scientists have not been able to explain the expansion of gay rights in a conservative age because they refuse to respect the special qualities of judicial decision making. These qualities require the Supreme Court to look simultaneously at the past, present, and future, and, most importantly, to determine questions of individual rights through a consideration of how citizens are to live under a continuing rights regime. Unless scholars understand how and why Supreme Court decision making differs from that of more directly politically accountable institutions we can expect no greater success in explaining or predicting individual rights in the future.

Cover of Special Issue Constitutional Politics in a Conservative Era
DOI
10.1016/S1059-4337(2008)44
Publication date
2008-05-06
Book series
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-0-7623-1486-7
eISBN
978-1-84950-562-8
Book series ISSN
1059-4337