Tracking Supreme Court Justices' Rulings: Principles of Law or Politics?

By Black, Eric | MinnPost.com, May 16, 2014 | Go to article overview

Tracking Supreme Court Justices' Rulings: Principles of Law or Politics?


Black, Eric, MinnPost.com


Following up on the recent McCutcheon v. FEC ruling -- in which the U.S. Supreme Court broke along the familiar five conservatives versus four liberals to allow wealthy donors to give more to candidates -- Tom Edsall used his blog at The New York Times early this week to return to what he called the "80-year-old debate between those who contend that the Supreme Court decides cases on the basis of abstract principles of law and those who argue that judicial rulings are based primarily on political and economic considerations."

It's a long substantive piece in which Edsall aggregates a number of recent scholarly takes on that issue, so don't attempt it unless you care about that issue. Edsall doesn't enunciate a big ultimate finding of his own, but it's obvious that Edsall -- who leans left but is relentlessly substantive -- and the scholarly community have concluded that -- on the biggest, most important, most controversial cases -- most of the justices are ruling along ideological- bordering-on-partisan lines. Suffice to say, the headline on the piece is "Supreme Injustice."

The star whose study takes over the second half of the piece is University of Chicago constitutional law scholar Geoffrey Stone, who first surveyed law professors, asking them identify the 20 most significant Supreme Court decisions since 2000. The ultimate list included "rulings on the Violence Against Women Act; Bush v. Gore; parochial school vouchers; a challenge to a 'three strikes' law; affirmative action in higher education; the prohibition of 'same- sex sodomy;' the death penalty for minors; the display of the Ten Commandments in a county courthouse; a redevelopment plan affecting property rights; two cases involving Guantanamo detainees; partial birth abortion; integration in public schools; gun regulation; the Affordable Care Act; the federal Defense of Marriage Act; Crawford v. Marion County; Citizens United; and Shelby County v. Holder."

As far as bloc voting by ideological group:

The five very conservative justices who served on the court from 2000 to 2013 -- including four still on the bench, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and former Chief Justice William Rehnquist -- "voted the conservative line in these 20 cases 98.5 percent of the time," Stone found. The six moderate liberals -- including four still on the court, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, along with former justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter -- "voted for the 'liberal' policy position 97.5 percent of the time. …

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