The only times the four liberals picked off a win was in the "mixed cases," in which they won over a justice like Chief Justice Roberts rather than “swing vote” Kennedy. In other words, the tilt to the right has already occurred. And that tilt coincides with a fundamental, historic, and irreversible change in the court itself and its role in American life.
What happened? I have no inside sources, but my own eyes and ears told me during the past term that “Justice Kennedy” was tired. That weariness, I think, accounts for the minimalism of some of his opinions—the fact-bound resolution of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the remands in the two partisan gerrymandering cases, the toothless plea for kindness to President Trump in his separate opinion in the “travel ban” case.
Beyond that, Kennedy, always a conservative, has been moving right since the advent of Barack Obama. That president, and his signature health-care statute, alarmed a lot of old-style conservatives. They regarded Obama as (as Alexander Hamilton described Aaron Burr) an “embryo-Caesar.” America, they sincerely thought, was becoming a collectivist nightmare of big government.
If Kennedy felt that way, it would explain the testy and contemptuous tone that pervaded his bench conduct during Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The case tested the ability of state legislatures to authorize public-sector unions to collect “agency fees” from non-members they are required to represent. At argument in February, this courtliest justice quite uncharacteristically lost his temper with a lawyer defending the state’s “partnership” with unions “It can be a partner with you in advocating for a greater size workforce, against privatization, against merit promotion, against—for teacher tenure, for higher wages, for massive government, for increasing bonded indebtedness, for increasing taxes?” The moment was entirely improper, and revealing.
But Kennedy was not the only changed member of the 2017-18 court. The 2018 model John Roberts may no longer be the imperiously independent John Roberts of former years. Dahlia Lithwick has written persuasively of the systematic campaign from Republican circles on Capitol Hill and the White House to intimidate Roberts. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley warned Roberts not to utter a peep during the Merrick Garland controversy; he complied. Donald Trump (who praised the maverick Kennedy) consistently reviled Roberts for his Obamacare vote. “Congratulations to John Roberts for making Americans hate the Supreme Court because of his BS,” Trump tweeted in 2012; during the campaign, he called the chief justice “an absolute nightmare” and “a disaster.” That campaign of intimidation may have worked. Roberts’s opinion in Trump v. Hawaii was not just deferential in tone, it was servile, almost a plea for mercy.