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Awaiting the Four Horsemen: Kennedy Retires & American Politics Combusts

27 Jun 2018

Justice Anthony Kennedy has decided to step down from the United States Supreme Court. As the announcement rolled across social media, the reactions were animated. Progressives preferred expletive-laden diatribes, while conservatives sang hosannas. The emotional release is testament to the unique influence of Justice Kennedy and to the outsized role the Supreme Court has come to occupy in our political space.

Kennedy leaves a complex legacy difficult to categorize. He is best known for his opinions surrounding abortion and gay rights. He was part of the “Republican” triumvirate” that voted to uphold Roe in Casey. Kennedy, Souter, and O’Connor, all appointed by pro-life GOP presidents, instead determined Roe was too culturally embedded to overturn. It was a crushing moment for conservatives who had labored for a generation to overturn Roe and thought, after a string of Republican appointments, Casey afforded them the best opportunity. From that moment on, Kennedy was viewed as a “failed” appointment by most Republican Court watchers.

Kennedy also penned most of the important cases surrounding LGBT rights. He authored Romer, which overturned Colorado’s constitutional amendment that attempted to roll back county and municipal codes that carved out legal protections for homosexuals. He penned Lawrence, which repealed Texas’ anti-sodomy law (and overturned Bowers in the process), as well as Windsor and Obergefell, which respectively struck down traditional federal and state definitions of marriage. Kennedy commanded such power because he was frequently the swing vote in these hotly contested social issues.

While liberals grieve his departure, and conservatives cheer, both sides are being a bit selective in their memories. Paired with his progressive social tendencies, Kennedy also voted to restrain the government’s power in key elements. He sided with religious liberty advocates, crisis pregnancy centers, and non-union members, all “conservative” victories, just during the past weeks. Kennedy also voted to overturn key aspects of the Affordable Care Act because he believed it unconstitutionally expanded Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause (Roberts wrote the majority opinion that ruled differently).

The emotion today is due to Kennedy’s unquestioned influence as the swing vote on most of these issues. His willingness to approach matters uniquely made him a wildcard and also prevented the Court from skewing heavily in one direction or another. As frustrating as this tendency might be for ideologues, having a somewhat moderated Court produces some benefits, I think.

Odds are Donald Trump will nominate and the Republican Senate will confirm an originalist in the mold of Scalia and Gorsuch. The Court will most likely be 5-4 with the split between those who are largely originalist in their approach to the Constitution versus those who are not. Progressives across the nation are terrified at that prospect. In a way, their angst is justified. A truly originalist Supreme Court would likely overturn Roe and may re-examine same-sex marriage as a constitutional mandate.

Keep in mind, though, even these decisions would not guarantee a pro-life nation or a bevy of state governments willing to outlaw gay marriage. It would produce a robust set of political arguments and state laws all over the map (literally and figuratively) on marriage and abortion. Though I could be wrong, my inkling is that “rights,” once extended, are difficult to contract. Marriage would be politically difficult to “re-re-define.” Abortion? My guess is that 10-15 states would come close to banning the procedure in most cases and 15-20 would allow it most cases. The rest would fall somewhere in the middle.

These social issues, and their “constitutionalization,” are what make Kennedy’s retirement so critical. Expect Trump to move quickly with a nomination. The Senate will likely confirm close to the mid-term election. Politically, it will be nasty. Progressives will throw everything at anyone resembling a vulnerable or wavering Republican. Conservatives will target some weak Democrats (Heitkamp, Manchin, McCaskill, Donnelly). There will be unending discussions of the right to choose. We will see reenactments of The Handmaid’s Tale in a variety of settings. We will see demonstrations, sit-ins, and, potentially riots if it appears Trump’s pick is likely to overrule Roe. Remember the mayhem in Madison when Scott Walker took on public unions? Multiply that times 11 and we might be getting close.

What this all reveals, at least to me, is the inherent political weakness of Progressives at the moment. Their victories over the past several decades have come mostly through the Judicial Branch. They are unused to persuasion because they have not needed it. Instead of argument, they have veered toward assertions of somewhat unchecked power. Naturally, all of this will be cast as a noble effort to secure minority rights. But don’t be fooled. This is an effort to maintain judicial rule at the expense of the American people and their elected officials.

One final word. Conservatives would be wise not to count many chickens at this point. Things change. Judges change. Perspectives change. I would be thoroughly unsurprised if conservatives on the Court begin to think a little differently when they have the votes to overturn some precedents. Discussions of the Court’s legitimacy will hold a special weight. Institutional norms will be asserted. Narrow, moderate decisions will be preferred. In the end, a member of the Court might simply shift in certain areas. Don’t assume anything. My not so bold prediction–expect Roberts to approach moderately in an effort to keep the Court out of the political crosshairs. We will see.

What do you all think?