Congress Response 126 Harv. L. Rev. F. 1

The Disdain Campaign

Responding to Pamela S. Karlan, Democracy and Disdain, 126 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (2012)

Response To:


You run one time, you got yourself a set of chains. You run twice you got yourself two sets. You ain’t gonna need no third set, ‘cause you gonna get your mind right. And I mean RIGHT. Take a good look at Luke. Cool Hand Luke?

— The Captain, Cool Hand Luke1

In her Foreword2, Professor Pamela Karlan offers a quite remarkable critique of the conservative Justices on the Supreme Court. She faults them not so much for the doctrines they purport to follow, or outcomes they reach, but for the attitude they allegedly manifest toward Congress and the people. “My focus here is not so much on the content of the doctrine but on the character of the analysis.”3 She describes Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion of the Court as “a thinly veiled critique of Congress: the fools couldn’t even figure out how to structure section § 5000A to render it constitutional.”4 And of the Chief Justice’s attitude, she says that “[h]e conveyed disdain even as he upheld the Act.”5 In her conclusion, she asks, “if the Justices disdain us, how ought we to respond?”6 This question echoes how she begins her provocative piece: “The Court’s dismissive treatment of politics raises the question whether, and for how long, the people will maintain their confidence in a Court that has lost its confidence in them.”7

Although she also offers insightful observations comparing the Roberts Court with the Warren Court, her principal theme is reflected in these passages and the very title of her piece: “Democracy and Disdain.” According to Karlan, in addition to whatever may be wrong with their principles and doctrines, the conservative Justices simply have a bad attitude. To paraphrase the Captain in Cool Hand Luke, they don’t have their “minds right.” It is this quite distinctive thesis I wish to examine here. For, as it happens, the left knows a thing or two about disdain.

The left began a campaign of disdain toward conservative and libertarian jurists when Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court. The first shot was launched by Senator Edward Kennedy within an hour of the nomination in his now-famous floor speech before any hearings were held:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizen’s doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.8

While then—Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden presided over a fair and substantive confirmation hearing, Kennedy’s campaign of disdain was largely conducted in the media. When Bork was defeated, the campaign was credited with having worked. This was just the beginning.

The campaign of disdain was next launched against Justice Thomas. Although it failed to prevent his confirmation, it did not let up. After he became a Justice, he was subjected to an endless barrage of criticism questioning his honesty,9 intelligence, and independence10. Although in recent years, the epithet of “Scalia’s clone” has begun to abate,11 as we shall see, it lies just beneath the surface whenever the campaign of disdain is launched against the conservative Justices who managed to survive the vetting process and make it onto the Court.

Once the conservatives attained a majority under Chief Justice Rehnquist, the campaign of disdain was aimed at the Court itself. In 1995, the conservative majority in the Rehnquist Court was met with disdain when it found a limit to the Commerce Clause and invalidated the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 in United States v. Lopez12. During the litigation over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act13 (ACA), some on the left touted the distinction between economic and noneconomic activity established in that case as proof that it too believes in limits to the Commerce Clause. Back then, though, the left was fulminating about “conservative judicial activism” for finding any limit on congressional power other than some, but not all, of the enumerated rights plus the right of privacy.14

In 2000, the left’s disdain hit hysterical heights when the five conservative Justices voted in Bush v. Gore15 to suspend the vote counting in Florida after seven Justices had found an equal protection problem with the way the recount was being conducted. The left’s disdain for the conservative majority was in full force when, in 2008, the majority voted to protect the Second Amendment’s individual right to keep and bear arms16, and was on display when, in 2010, the majority found that the right applied to the states via the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.17

One thing all these and other so-called “New Federalism” cases had in common was a continuing opposition to each of these rulings by a rigidly resolute voting block of four Justices. Even after each of these decisions was reached, none of these dissenters later accepted these cases as precedent. Each consistently urged their limitation or reversal. (Arguably, writing for the majority in Gonzales v. Raich18, Justice Stevens accepted the holding of Lopez in finding the backyard cultivation of marijuana for medical use was “economic” activity, but attracting the vote of Justice Kennedy is a more likely explanation for its reasoning.) In their persistent resistance, the dissenting opinions of the more progressive Justices fed, and continue to feed, the left’s campaign of disdain.

This is not to suggest that the more progressive Justices have themselves manifested disdain for their more conservative colleagues. To the contrary. While some dissenting opinions may be sharper than others, the persistent collegiality of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts has been quite admirable. But the adamant refusal of the four progressive dissenters to acquiesce in and follow these New Federalism cases has fed the campaign of disdain by critics of the conservative Justices. Because of this sustained campaign, thirty years of judicial decisions await the switch of just one vote to be swept away.

The campaign continued after the conservative Justices in Citizens United v. FEC19 upheld the free speech rights of American citizens who chose to associate as labor unions or as limited liability corporations. Indeed, on January 27, 2010, just six days after the case was decided, the President of the United States used his State of the Union address to upbraid the Justices for their decision:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.20

The disdain was not just in the words themselves but also in the context of their delivery, as the Justices were seated before the President in the well of the House surrounded by his partisans who stood and cheered the condemnation of their week-old decision.21 The lack of respect was underscored by the President’s pro forma disclaimer, “with all due respect to the separation of powers.”

To be clear, presidents are perfectly entitled to criticize the Justices and their rulings, as I often do. The issue is the discourtesy of lodging a criticism of the Justices without warning as they were forced to sit passively while predictably surrounded by standing, applauding, and cheering members of the President’s own party.

In political campaigns, the object of negative broadsides is often to sway the moderate swing voter. So too with the most recent campaign of disdain launched by the left against the conservative Justices who had the temerity during oral argument in the health care challenge to take seriously the legal arguments made by the Attorneys General of twenty-six states and the National Federation of Independent Business. The skeptical tenor of the oral arguments stunned many supporters of the ACA, and there arose from their ranks a veritable rage at the impertinence of the conservative Justices.

Not content to go to their neutral corners after the case was argued and submitted, the left intelligentsia, led by the President himself, publicly went on the offensive. On March 28, 2012, the day before the Friday conference vote, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne was quick to express his disdain for the conservative “judicial activist” Justices by ridiculing their questions from the bench before moving to the implications of invalidating the ACA. If the “conservative justices . . . strike down or cripple the health-care law,” he concluded, “a court that gave us Bush v. Gore and Citizens United will prove conclusively that it sees no limits on its power, no need to defer to those elected to make our laws. A Supreme Court that is supposed to give us justice will instead deliver ideology.”