Jeffrey Rosen’s article about the pro-business court — the Chamber of Commerce’s “litigation center filed briefs in 15 cases and its side won in 13 of them” — is very much worth reading. It’s worth being reminded, again, that although court watchers tend to divide the Court into symmetrical groups of “liberals” and “conservatives” there’s no Marshall or Douglas or Brennan on the current Court, as evidenced by the Chamber’s enthusiastic support of Ginsburg and (especially) Breyer. It’s instructive that the Court’s two Democratic appointees are no more liberal than its two Rockefeller Republicans.
I do think some parts of the general assessment of the Court that starts this analysis should be qualified:
What should we make of the Supreme Court’s transformation? Throughout its history, the court has tended to issue opinions, in areas from free speech to gender equality, that reflect or consolidate a social consensus. With their pro-business jurisprudence, the justices may be capturing an emerging spirit of agreement among liberal and conservative elites about the value of free markets. Among the professional classes, many Democrats and Republicans, whatever their other disagreements, have come to share a relatively laissez-faire, technocratic vision of the economy and are suspicious of excessive regulation and reflexive efforts to vilify big business. Judges, lawyers and law professors (such as myself) drilled in cost-benefit analysis over the past three decades, are no exception. It should come as little surprise that John Roberts and Stephen Breyer, both of whom studied the economic analysis of law at Harvard, have similar instincts in business cases.
This elite consensus, however, is not necessarily shared by the country as a whole. If anything, America may be entering something of a populist moment. If you combine the groups of Americans in a recent Pew survey who lean toward some strain of economic populism — from disaffected and conservative Democrats to traditional liberals to social and big-government conservatives — at least two-thirds of all voters arguably feel sympathy for government intervention in the economy.
Seeing the Supreme Court as an adjunct of a social consensus is a more accurate reductionism than seeing the Court as a valiant defender of powerless minorities, but it’s a little problematic. The Court, because of the appointment process and its own inherent institutional weaknesses (especially its reliance on other political actors to enforce its commands), is unlikely to stray outside a broad range of political acceptability for long. But on many important issues, a social consensus doesn’t exist, and as long as the Court has some support among powerful elites it has more range of action than the idea that the Court follows the opinion polls might imply. In the long run, this is likely to mean a Court that’s more libertarian than the median voter. And while talk about restoring a “Constitution in Exile” is overblown, just as the late Rehnquist Court was more socially liberal than the Republican-controlled Congress so is the current Court likely to make it more difficult for Democratic Congresses and presidents to enact desirable regulations and (especially) to enforce existing ones, even if these laws are broadly popular. Indeed, as the article demonstrates the Republican-dominated Court heps Republicans in Congress greatly, as it makes it harder to do thing like enforce civil rights legislation without forcing conservative legislators to modify the legislation and take the hit.