The following is a review of the Supreme Court’s constitutional decisions during its October 2020 term—so-named due to it beginning in October—which ended on June 30. This review shows that, contrary to the mainstream media narrative, the court doesn’t have a “conservative majority.” In constitutional cases, at least, it leans toward the liberal side.
SCOTUS Blog tells us that during this term, the court’s most liberal justice, Sonya Sotomayor, was in the majority 70 percent of the time. But that includes cases interpreting federal statutes, where conservatives won some victories. Those wins included Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (pdf), upholding Arizona’s election integrity law, and Pakdel v. San Francisco (pdf), helping landowners sue for compensation when the government seizes their land.
Where the liberal tilt is noticeable is in constitutional cases.
Why the Roberts Court Isn’t Conservative
There are two underlying reasons why the Roberts court, presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts, isn’t conservative. First, the bench contains three liberal justices who often seem to manipulate their methods to achieve “progressive” results. They are Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sotomayor. But none of the other six members of the court attempt to balance this by straining for conservative results. The last justice of that kind, James McReynolds, retired in 1941.
Instead, the remaining six usually try to apply neutral principles, irrespective of outcome. Justice Clarence Thomas, and to a lesser extent Justice Neil Gorsuch, attempt to follow the Constitution’s original meaning. Justice Samuel Alito often leans in this direction as well. So when they think the original meaning produces liberal outcomes, they produce them. The other three tend to be “minimalists,” mostly following precedent.
The second reason the court isn’t conservative is that many of its constitutional precedents were issued during the time—roughly from 1940 to 1990—when the court was ultra-liberal. Of course, when you apply liberal decisions, you usually get liberal results.
When Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Barrett were confirmed, the ballyhoo was that they would revolutionize the bench. But I was fairly certain they would leave most of the court’s precedents intact, so I published predictions that neither Kavanaugh nor Barrett would change much. And thus far my predictions have been accurate.
The ‘Progressive’ Pattern in Modern Constitutional Law
The American Founders constructed the Constitution on the premise that jurists would continue to apply traditional Anglo-American rules of judging, including what we now call originalism. But during the 1920s, “progressive” justices with very different ideas began to influence the Supreme Court, and, by 1940, they had a lock on it. That lock lasted for about 50 years.
During this period, the justices largely rewrote the Constitution. They refused to enforce limits on the enumerated powers of the federal government. Instead, they allowed federal officials to regulate all sorts of activities far outside the scope of the authority granted by the Constitution. On the other hand, they freely voided state laws—mostly through the inventive deployment of the 14th Amendment. They also “constitutionalized” elite social values—or, perhaps, anti-values. They voided—or rewrote—long-standing policies on land use, domestic relations, pornography, abortion, legislative apportionment, criminal law, and other subjects.
All three patterns appear in the constitutional cases decided this term. Indeed, the Roberts court is proving to be more “progressive” than the Rehnquist court of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Refusing to Enforce Limits on the Enumerated Powers of the Federal Government
As just noted, the liberal majority of 1940 to 1990 refused to enforce the Constitution’s inherent limits on the enumerated powers granted to the federal government. This pattern continued during the latest term.
California v. Texas (pdf) effectively upheld Obamacare for the third time—even though, by the court’s own previously announced standards, Obamacare exceeds Congress’s power. Texas and other states are spending billions of dollars each year to comply with an unconstitutional law, but the Supreme Court still denied them standing.
As Alito pointed out in his dissent, there’s a dramatic contrast between how the court indulges liberal states pursuing liberal causes and how it treated the more conservative states in this case. Only Gorsuch joined Alito in his dissent.
In Standing Akimbo v. United States, the justices refused to review a lower tribunal’s decision based on a 2005 Supreme Court case. That 2005 case stretched Congress’s power under the Necessary and Proper Clause to include wholly local activities. Even worse, the 2005 case basically held that, in some circumstances at least, the more overreaching a congressional statute, the more likely it is to be “constitutional.”
In Standing Akimbo, Thomas wrote separately and alone (pdf) to point out that, based on the reasoning of the 2005 case, the statute the lower court applied was no longer constitutional.
In Alabama Association of Realtors v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (pdf), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—part of the federal bureaucracy—imposed a nationwide moratorium on landlord-tenant evictions. Under any fair reading of the Constitution, not even Congress—much less an unelected agency—may meddle with the landlord-tenant relationship. That’s a classic example of an area reserved to the states. Yet, the court failed to address the constitutional issue and failed to stop the overreach.
PennEast Pipeline v. New Jersey (pdf) requires some explanation:
The Constitution gives Congress the authority to condemn land for public purposes. The Constitution doesn’t mention this “eminent domain” power explicitly, but history has shown it to be incidental to Congress’s other powers (pdf).
However, the 11th Amendment says, in part, that a citizen of one state may not sue another state without its consent. Yet Congress and a federal agency purported to give a Delaware gas line company the authority to condemn land owned by the State of New Jersey.
The condemnation suit should have been ruled unconstitutional. However, the court interpreted Congress’s powers expansively notwithstanding the 11th Amendment. Barrett dissented, joined by Thomas, Kagan, and Gorsuch.
The majority opinions in the foregoing cases displayed the justices at their worst. Breyer’s opinion in the Obamacare case centered on an obvious logical fallacy, as I showed in an earlier essay. Roberts’s opinion in PennEast Pipeline was just as messy. In Standing Akimbo and Alabama Association, the court offered no explanation at all.
Voiding State Laws Through Inventive Use of the 14th Amendment
The 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause reads: “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” This means that when a state prosecutes a person civilly or criminally, it has to follow pre-existing law. It can’t make up the rules as it goes along.
Early in the 20th century, conservative activist justices claimed that the Due Process Clause voided certain unrelated state practices. When the liberal activists took over, they decided the same thing—although, of course, they banned different practices. Liberal activist justices further claimed that the Due Process Clause required the states to follow almost every jot and tittle of the justices’ own Bill of Rights decisions.
The court has repudiated the conservative activists’ distortions, but continues to apply and extend the liberal activist version. Last term, the court declared that several states’ longstanding jury rules violated the Due Process Clause (pdf). Here are the results from this term:
Cedar Point v. Hassid (pdf), written by Roberts, held that a California statute allowing union organizers access to agricultural land was an uncompensated “taking” in violation of the Fifth Amendment. I like the result, but the problem is that it rests upon the liberal activist fiction that the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause applies the Fifth Amendment to the states.
Fulton v. Philadephia (pdf) unanimously awarded a hollow victory to a Catholic charity. It held that the city of Philadelphia couldn’t disqualify the charity from participating in a foster child program because of the charity’s religious views. But the ruling was based on the “due process” fiction, and it explicitly left open a path for Philadelphia to circumvent it.
The court should have held that Philadelphia invidiously discrimin`ated against the Catholic charity in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
In Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta (pdf) the court voided a policy of the California attorney general. The policy required charities to disclose the names of their principal donors—thereby opening those donors to retaliation from—mostly leftist—thugs. Again, I like the result, but not the methodology.
Some will claim that Bonta is a “conservative” decision. This is perverse. The decision, like the much-abused case of Citizens United, is based almost exclusively on precedents issued by benches dominated by liberal activists. Bonta also relied on the intellectual spider webs called “tiers of scrutiny”—invented by liberal activist justices.
Imposition of Elite Social Values—or Anti-values
When “progressives” dominated the Supreme Court, they engaged in what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynahan (D-N.Y.) labeled “defining deviancy down.” Later Supreme Court majorities have continued, rather than reversed, the trend. Last term, in Bostock v. Clayton County (pdf), the justices ruled that the category of “sex” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was intended to mean men and women, also extended to persons displaying homosexual and transgender behavior. This massively extended the scope of the law and reduced the right of free association—all without a congressional vote.
This term, in Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, the court left standing a lower court order that a biological female could use a high school boys’ restroom. Only Thomas and Alito dissented (pdf).
Similarly, in Berisha v. Lawson (pdf), the court refused to review several cases from the liberal-activist era designed to protect the mass media from defamation liability. Although those precedents have encouraged lies and “dark money” campaigns—and although they’re utterly unrelated to the Constitution’s real meaning—only Thomas and Gorsuch argued for re-assessing them. On the other hand, in a statutory decision issued the same day, the court refused to grant campus conservatives a remedy against university administrators who had squashed their right to free speech (pdf).
Mahoney Area School District v. B.L. (pdf), written by Breyer, further promotes the pattern of “defining deviancy down.” It was the silliest case of the term: The same court that refused to listen to 18 states challenging Obamacare earnestly endorsed the claim that a 14-year-old’s f-bombs were “free speech.”
The teenager used Snapchat to inflict multiple f-words and an image of her middle finger on 250 of her closest friends. The target of her ire was her high school and its cheerleading program. School administrators suspended her from the cheerleading squad for a year. You might think the administrators deserved commendation, but the court said that they violated the First Amendment.
The case illustrates the foolishness of nine Washington lawyers second-guessing hard-pressed school authorities’ discipline of a minor. Only Justice Thomas dissented.
In Conclusion …
The current court isn’t conservative. As this term’s constitutional cases show, the court applies, and sometimes extends, the anti-constitutional jurisprudence developed during its most liberal era.
Robert G. Natelson, a former constitutional law professor, is a senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver. His research studies frequently have been cited by Supreme Court justices and parties, as well as by numerous other courts. He’s the author of “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2014).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.