Contrary to what supporters say, he’s no originalist.
But Judge Kavanaugh hasn’t earned his originalist badge. It’s being fixed to him to mask the fact that as an appeals court judge, he relentlessly pressed forward a Republican agenda favoring business and religious interests.
.. Judge Kavanaugh leaned a bit toward an originalist approach in two opinions, one in 2008, the other in 2011. But when he was asked in 2016 whether he considered himself an originalist, he didn’t answer, and in a 2017 lecture, he expressed caution. “History and tradition, liberty, and judicial restraint and deference to the legislature,” he explained, “compete for primacy of place in different areas of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.”
To a pure originalist, this is an incoherent mixing of methodologies. Any ruling that departs from the original meaning should be thrown out. Judge Kavanaugh has called for no such thing.
.. Instead, he has proudly said that he’s a textualist, which means that he gives primacy to the ordinary meanings of the words of a statute, or the Constitution itself. Textualists steer away from other sources of meaning, like legislative history. Conservatives have often touted textualism for its neutral deference to the legislature. Three of the court’s conservative members — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Neal Gorsuch — lay claim to textualism as a guiding principle.
But textualism doesn’t serve as an overarching theory for conservative jurisprudence. Textualist interpretation can produce liberal as well as conservative interpretations of statutes. And because ambiguous phrasing in laws leaves judges with choices to make, it doesn’t put much of a restraint on judges. As Judge Kavanaugh has said, quoting the liberal-moderate Justice Elena Kagan, “We are all textualists now.” This means that textualism offers neither a clear dividing line from liberals nor the historical gravitas of originalism.
.. This is clear from the conservatives’ expansive interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, an approach that has no historical support from the time the First Amendment was written. Despite this, in a series of decisions, from Citizens United in 2010, which opened a faucet of campaign donations and spending, to Janus v. AFSCME in June, which diminished the clout of unions by stopping them from collecting dues from all the workers they represent, conservatives have used the First Amendment to strike down laws that regulate corporations, help unions and limit the influence of money on politics.
.. Tellingly, the court has accepted far more cases involving challenges to regulations of conservative speech than previous courts, with a win rate of 69 percent, compared with 21 percent for cases involving liberal speech. Judge Kavanaugh, too, has embraced this business-friendly interpretation of the First Amendment.
.. With five reliable members, the court’s conservative wing will be in a position to accomplish much, and for the most part it will be easier to achieve its goals without originalism.
.. Expect a reappearance, however, when it comes time to reconsider the constitutional right to abortion access established in Roe v. Wade. With that important exception, originalism has largely served its purpose and can be cast away
.. Judge Kavanaugh’s supporters call him an originalist rather than the pro-business Republican he is because of the theory’s claim that it separates law from politics. As the gap between originalism and the greater goals of conservative jurisprudence widens, however, the claim that the Supreme Court stands above the political fray, already damaged, will become harder to sustain.
The president is stocking the courts with a class of brilliant young textualists bearing little relation to even their Reagan or Bush predecessors. Mr. Trump’s nastygrams to Bob Corker will be a distant memory next week. Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett’s influence on the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could still be going strong 40 years from now.
.. Mr. Trump has now nominated nearly 60 judges, filling more vacancies than Barack Obama did in his entire first year. There are another 160 court openings, allowing Mr. Trump to flip or further consolidate conservative majorities on the circuit courts that have the final say on 99% of federal legal disputes.
.. Harry Reid’s 2013 decision to blow up the filibuster for judicial nominees has freed the Trump White House from having to worry about a Democratic veto during confirmation. Mr. McGahn’s team (loaded with former Clarence Thomas clerks) has carte blanche to work with outside groups like the Federalist Society to tap the most conservative judges.
.. The result has been a band of young rock stars and Scalia-style textualists like Ms. Barrett, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett and Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice David Stras.
.. Because Mr. Trump’s picks have largely spent their careers focused on administrative law and constitutional questions, few have gotten bogged down by controversial cultural rulings. They do have paper trails, but mostly on serious and technical issues. This helps reassure Republicans even as it deprives Democrats of the fodder they’d need to stage dramatic opposition.
.. Conservatives praised Mr. McConnell last year for refusing to consider Judge Merrick Garland, whom Mr. Obama had nominated to the Supreme Court. Less well known is the sheer number of federal judgeships Mr. McConnell sat on as the Obama administration wound down. Mr. Trump took office with 107 lower-court vacancies
.. The Trump judicial reset was never guaranteed. Mr. McConnell just happens to have a steely passion for remaking the judiciary. Previous majority leaders Trent Lott (best friends with trial lawyers) and Bill Frist (nice, nice) would never have gotten Justice Gorsuch confirmed. Those guys were the “establishment.”
.. Mr. Trump will keep baiting the media with shiny objects. In the background, government is being redone.