But confidence in the very idea that the Roberts majority will approach this as a "normal" legal matter, rather than as one more Bush v. Gore front in the political wars, grows ever harder to maintain, especially after the latest labor-rights ruling. It is worth reading carefully this lead editorial in yesterday's New York Times. In short, the same five conservative Justices who in their pre-appointment phase had inveighed against "judicial activism" and "legislating from the bench," while promising to live the gospel of judicial "humility" if confirmed, went out of their way, in a ruling written by Samuel Alito, to decree new law contrary to what Congress had ordered and other courts had long approved.*
Normally I shy away from apocalyptic readings of the American predicament. We're a big, messy country; we've been through a lot -- perhaps even more than we thought, what with Abraham Lincoln and the vampires. We'll probably muddle through this and be very worried about something else ten years from now. But when you look at the sequence from Bush v. Gore, through Citizens United, to what seems to be coming on the health-care front; and you combine it with ongoing efforts in Florida and elsewhere to prevent voting from presumably Democratic blocs; and add that to the simply unprecedented abuse of the filibuster in the years since the Democrats won control of the Senate and then took the White House, you have what we'd identify as a kind of long-term coup if we saw it happening anywhere else.**
Liberal democracies like ours depend on rules but also on norms -- on the assumption that you'll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends. The norms imply some loyalty to the system as a whole that outweighs your immediate partisan interest. Not red states, nor blue states, but the United States of America. It was out of loyalty to the system that Al Gore stepped aside after Bush v. Gore. Norms have given the Supreme Court its unquestioned legitimacy. The Roberts majority is barreling ahead without regard for the norms, and it is taking the court's legitimacy with it.
Three items for extra reading.
1) On how Democrats in general should react if the Court, as seems likely, announces a plainly partisan ruling about the health care law, see Michael Tomasky's argument.
2) If you want some bitter amusement, look back at Dahlia Lithwick's excellent real-time reports on how Samuel Alito and John Roberts presented themselves, back when they were trying out for their current lifetime roles:
At his hearings, Roberts sounded the notes of "humility" and "modesty" repeatedly. Over and over, he emphasized the need for judicial deference--to precedent, to the other branches of government, and also to his colleagues on the court. He declined to answer dozens more questions than did Alito. But his casting of himself as a modest cog in a vast and complicated machine afforded real comfort even to those of us concerned about his substantive views.
At first blush, Alito's approach appears simply to be a different flavor of judicial modesty: Where Roberts spoke repeatedly of deference to other institutions, Alito persistently defers to the legal process itself. He tells us, over and over again, that he approaches cases with an "open mind." He says he would start analyzing any issue by closely scrutinizing the relevant statute. He insists--time and again--that he hasn't yet fully studied the issue at hand and cannot therefore offer an opinion.
There's a lot more, and all in the same mode that in retrospect was quite plainly 100% cynical.