September 10, 2019

THE SCIENCE IS SETTLED: Liberal Supreme Court justices vote in lockstep, not the conservative justices.

Ever since Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement last year, commentators have prophesied that President Donald Trump’s replacement of that moderate jurist would lead to a conservative majority running roughshod over core liberal concerns. That’s why opposition to the milquetoast establishmentarian Brett Kavanaugh was so fierce, even before the 11th-hour sexual-assault allegations.

Justice Kavanaugh was supposed to have single-handedly overturned Roe v. Wade, but a funny thing happened on the road to apocalypse. Particularly in petition rejections and other procedural votes, Kavanaugh has demonstrated a pragmatic approach. And a term with few big controversies showed the liberals voting together much more than the conservatives.

There were 67 decisions after argument in the term that ended in June. In those cases, the four justices appointed by Democratic presidents voted the same way 51 times, while the five Republican appointees held tight 37 times. And of the 20 cases where the court split 5-4, only seven had the “expected” ideological divide of conservatives over liberals. By the end of the term, each conservative justice had joined the liberals as the deciding vote at least once.

That dynamic isn’t something that sprang up in the Trump era or with the court’s newest personnel. In the 2014-15 term, with Kennedy at the height of his “swing vote” power —the last full term before Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and resulting year-long vacancy — the four liberals stuck together in 55 of 66 cases, while the four conservatives (not counting Kennedy) voted as a unit in 39.

Well, there are no press plaudits for liberals who break right. Plus: “In sum, if lockstep voting and a results-driven court concern us, it isn’t the conservatives we should be worried about. While senators, journalists and academics love decrying the Roberts Five, it’s the (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg Four that represent a bloc geared toward progressive policy outcomes. To be sure, a reinvigorated conservative grouping may yet come to dominate the court — especially if Trump fills another seat — but it hasn’t happened yet.”

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