Is the Contemporary Supreme Court Really That Conservative?
posted by Brandon Bartels
Adam Liptak’s extensive analysis in the New York Times a few weeks ago presents some compelling empirical trends from the Roberts Court era. Liptak presents some bold conclusions, arguing that the Roberts Court of the 2009 term “became the most conservative one in living memory.”
Some research I am conducting (with my co-author, Christopher Johnston) on public perceptions of the Supreme Court asks, among other things, whether the contemporary Supreme Court is really all that conservative, either objectively (looking at the Court’s raw outputs) or from the American public’s point of view. It has become a sort of kneejerk reaction for the media, legal commentators, and academics to label the contemporary Court as “conservative.” This assumption can partly be attributed to the fact that Republican presidents have dominated Supreme Court appointments over the past 40 years or so. Indeed, since President Johnson put Thurgood Marshall on the Court in 1967 (Johnson’s last appointment), 12 out of the last 16 justices have been appointed by Republican presidents. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan are the only Democratically appointed justices in this era.
But in recent times, of course, conservatives have not dominated or dictated decision outcomes on the Court, with O’Connor and Kennedy — conservative leaning swing justices — joining the liberal justices on some high-profile decisions. Thinking about some of the Court’s major decisions in the 1990s and 2000s, many high profile and legally significant liberal decisions emerged. Granted, there have also been several high profile conservative decisions, but one would not necessarily expect a supposedly conservative Court to produce as many significant liberal decisions as we have seen. To get an empirical sense of what I am talking about, Figure 1 below displays two graphs. The top graph, Figure 1a, presents the annual percentage of liberal decisions produced by the Court from the 1953-2008 terms of the Court for all cases decided by the Court. The bottom graph, Figure 1b, displays Supreme Court liberalism in highly salient Supreme Court cases that receive ample attention from media and elite discourse. To measure salience, we use Epstein and Segal’s (2000)1 measure for whether or not a decision was covered on the front page of the New York Times the day after the ruling. Data on the Court’s decisions come from the Supreme Court Database, where decisions are coded as liberal or conservative following the standard coding scheme.2 The smoothed solid line in each graph is a non-parametric line of best of fit (lowess, or locally weighted smoothing), which allows one to visualize the overall trends of the Court’s policymaking.
Consider first Figure 1a. While it is clear that the Court has taken a significant right turn since the Warren Court era, the data suggest that the Court — spanning from the Burger Court to the present — is not nearly as conservative as what might have been expected given the number of Republican-appointed justices on the Court. Note the number of terms where the Court, even during the Rehnquist and Roberts eras, approached and sometimes surpassed a 50% liberal rating. During these two eras, the percentage of liberal decisions averages about 45%, suggesting the Court should essentially be considered as moderate, or perhaps slightly right of center, when thinking about the totality of its decisions over time.
FIGURE 1: Supreme Court Liberalism, 1953-2008 Terms
Turning to Figure 1b, which considers the Court’s ideological tenor in highly salient cases, what is particularly striking is that during the Rehnquist and Roberts eras, which are supposedly conservative Courts, the Court has produced more liberal decisions (58%) than conservative decisions in these most salient cases. In 12 out of the 19 terms during the Rehnquist Court, the Court hit or surpassed a 50% liberal rating. And in the last 8 terms of the Rehnquist Court (1997-2004), the Court’s liberal rating averages around 63%, which rivals the liberal rating for portions of the Warren Court. All four terms of the Roberts Court included in the graph show liberal ratings of 50% or greater (recall that the 2009 term is not included in the graph). The Burger Court also produced several terms with relatively high liberal ratings in high-salience cases. Thinking about some of the significant decisions that emerged from the Rehnquist Court of the 1990s and 2000s, the liberal trends in Figure 1b should not come as a huge surprise. The Court has issued liberal decisions on cases of significant legal importance that have served as lightning rods for broader political debates and have drawn the ire of conservative leaders. Examples include the University of Michigan affirmative action decision that upheld the use of race as a factor in admissions (Grutter), Lawrence v. Texas, the enemy combatant cases, the upholding of Miranda in Dickerson, the invalidation of the death penalty for juveniles and those with mental retardation, the invalidation of school prayer at high school football games, and the Court’s invalidation of state laws banning partial-birth abortion, to name a few. Adding fuel to the fire for many conservatives is the Court’s consistent endorsement of Roe v. Wade. While Planned Parenthood v. Casey significantly altered the Roe decision by gutting the trimester framework and allowing states significantly more latitude in passing abortion restrictions, it still upheld the core of Roe, which is that a woman has a constitutional right to have an abortion.
As I have noted, there certainly have been some significant conservative decisions as well in the contemporary era. But on balance, the data show that in these highly salient decisions, the contemporary Court has generally produced more liberal decisions than conservative ones. Is the New York Times more likely to cover liberal decisions on the front page, thus threatening the validity of the salience measure? I do not think this a large concern. The NYT salience measure has good face validity, and the decisions that appear on the front page are the blockbuster cases, regardless of whether they are decided liberally or conservatively. On the whole, when considering both Figures 1a and 1b, it would be very difficult to justify labeling the contemporary Court as “conservative.” It would probably be most fair to label the Court as moderate, though some might even consider the Court as moderate-to-liberal, given the Court’s outputs in high-salience decisions.
Our research goes on to examine American citizens’ perceptions of the ideological tenor of the Supreme Court’s policymaking. Many in the mass public perceive the Court as taking a moderate, case-by-case approach to its decision making. But a significant proportion of citizens, particularly conservatives, perceive of the Court as liberal in its decision making, a perception that has a rational basis given the data discussed above. Also, a significant proportion of the public perceives of the Court as conservative. Our work addresses several other aspects that are beyond the scope of this post’s inquiry. Ultimately, we show that “subjective ideological disagreement” — incongruence between an individual’s own ideological preferences and their perceptions of the Court’s ideological tenor — has deleterious consequences for legitimacy orientations toward the Court among Americans.
1 Epstein, Lee, and Jeffrey A. Segal. 2000. “Measuring Issue Salience.” American Journal of Political Science 44:66-83.
2 To code liberal and conservative decisions, I follow the widely-used convention employed by the Supreme Court Database and numerous political scientists. For instance, in civil liberties and rights cases, a liberal vote favors an individual challenging a government restriction of a civil liberty or right, while a conservative vote favors the government restriction. For a further explanation of other issues, see the Supreme Court Database codebook, variable 36 (p. 45).