Over the past several sessions, Supreme Court Justices appointed by Democratic presidents voted in unison more than their Republican counterparts.
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.
Even in 2013-14, when liberals and conservatives voted with their respective coalitions equally (54 times in 67 cases), 42 of those decisions were unanimous and there were only ten 5-4 rulings. In other words, when conservative justices vote together at the same rate as their liberal counterparts, it’s because the entire court is united.
Speaking of politically fraught cases that end up 5-4, it’s notable that there’s never a question of how the liberal justices will vote. Speculation runs rampant over whether one of the conservatives will go wobbly — whether out of unpredictable moderation, minimalistic pragmatism or idiosyncratic theory — but the liberals are guaranteed to please their constituency.
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