It has been a good week for liberal decisions form a conservative court. Yesterday, as I was certain they would, they threw out the absurd case against the Affordable Care Act. I’m not sure that this really changes anything. Conservatives will continue to complain about the law, but lack any effective way to repeal it, and certainly have no alternative.
The case made no sense and if Roberts had wanted to destroy Obamacare he would have done so when they ruled on the individual mandate. In this case it isn’t so much that the Supreme Court has become more liberal, but that the Supreme Court is not willing to go along with every ridiculous case brought by conservatives. Earlier in the week, The New York Times showed that the court has made more liberal decisions this year. Brendan Nyhan followed this up discussing a reason why the court might appear more liberal when it is not:
In a 2009 article, the political scientists Kevin T. McGuire, Georg Vanberg, Charles E. Smith Jr. and Gregory A. Caldeira proposed a theory that provides an alternate explanation to liberal drift. They predicted that conservatives would press their luck to take advantage when they had a majority on the court, appealing more cases they lost in lower courts. (Conversely, liberals would be less likely to appeal cases because they were more likely to prefer lower-court decisions and to fear creating damaging precedents.) Mr. McGuire and his co-authors then showed empirically that this process increased the number of conservative reversals of lower-court rulings but also increased the number of cases in which a more liberal ruling was affirmed because litigants guessed wrong about how far the court was willing to go.
Their prediction seems to fit nicely with recent evidence. The court has reversed lower-court decisions and decided in favor of conservatives on high-profile cases concerning issues like campaign finance and voting rights. But Justice Kennedy and/or Chief Justice Roberts have joined the liberal wing to affirm more liberal lower-court rulings in cases like today’s decisions on health care and housing.
The case also did show a degree of sanity on the court in deciding against an argument which only bat-shit crazy conservatives(such as George Will) could accept. It also demonstrated that at least one justice was persuadable as it takes four justices to accept a case, and only three stuck with this argument in the end.
The decision in favor of same-sex marriage was also predictable but is far more significant. It really does change the status quo for those living in states where same-sex marriage has remained illegal. Andrew Sullivan returned to blogging to describe what this meant to him:
We are not disordered or sick or defective or evil – at least no more than our fellow humans in this vale of tears. We are born into family; we love; we marry; we take care of our children; we die. No civil institution is related to these deep human experiences more than civil marriage and the exclusion of gay people from this institution was a statement of our core inferiority not just as citizens but as human beings. It took courage to embrace this fact the way the Supreme Court did today…
I think of the gay kids in the future who, when they figure out they are different, will never know the deep psychic wound my generation – and every one before mine – lived through: the pain of knowing they could never be fully part of their own family, never be fully a citizen of their own country. I think, more acutely, of the decades and centuries of human shame and darkness and waste and terror that defined gay people’s lives for so long. And I think of all those who supported this movement who never lived to see this day, who died in the ashes from which this phoenix of a movement emerged. This momentous achievement is their victory too – for marriage, as Kennedy argued, endures past death.
This case also shows how the Republican Party has moved to the right while the nation has become more liberal on social issues. Compare the views of the Roberts Court with this year’s presidential candidates which are summarized at BuzzFeed. In 2004 Republicans successfully used proposals to ban same sex marriage to turn out the vote in their favor. While opposition might help some candidates in Republican primaries, it will also hurt them in the general election.
In 2013 I had posted a prediction from George Clooney which is far closer to coming true: