Emergency appeals have become the tool of choice for the conservative movement.
The conservative majority on the Supreme Court was so eager to nullify Roe v. Wade, the 1973 precedent securing the right to abortion, that it didn’t even wait for oral arguments.
Instead, in the middle of the night, five of the high court’s conservatives issued a brief, unsigned order allowing a Texas law that bans abortion at six weeks. The law also gives private citizens the authority to sue anyone who “knowingly … aids or abets” an abortion and rewards them with $10,000 if successful, essentially placing a bounty on anyone wishing to end a pregnancy, and anyone who might help them. Texas is now rewarding residents who snitch to the state on the most intimate details of other people’s lives.
“Last night, the Court silently acquiesced in a State’s enactment of a law that flouts nearly 50 years of federal precedents,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. “The Court should not be so content to ignore its constitutional obligations to protect not only the rights of women, but also the sanctity of its precedents and of the rule of law.”
Also remarkable was that the Supreme Court acted through its “shadow docket,” the decisions the justices make regarding emergency appeals such as death-penalty cases. Under normal procedure, cases take time to work their way through the lower courts, and are received at the Supreme Court with extensive records, briefs, and oral arguments. Ideally, this allows the justices to ensure that their hugely consequential decisions are properly informed and made as carefully as possible, weighing all the relevant legal and constitutional issues. But there are some circumstances in which the Court needs to act quickly to prevent some imminent or irreversible harm. There’s nothing inherently sinister about that. The shadow docket, though, now resembles a venue where the conservative legal movement can get speedy service from its friends on the Court.
Over the past few years, the cases on the shadow docket have risen in significance, with the justices quietly making major changes to American law without the scrutiny or attention that comes with holding oral arguments or writing major opinions. Trump-administration attorneys found the Court’s conservative majority delighted to allow many of their most controversial policies to go forward. Under President Joe Biden, by contrast, the conservative justices have acted rapidly to block administration decisions, or to force Trump-era policies to remain in place.
“The term shadow is meant to evoke the understanding that what the Court is doing is not the way that decision making on an ordinary merits docket would happen,” says Melissa Murray, a law professor at NYU who clerked for Sotomayor while she was a federal judge. “I think it’s clear that it has become a shadowy way to effect substantive decisions in cases where the Court, in the light of day, would be more reluctant to move aggressively.”
The shadow docket has been a tremendously successful venue for the right. Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has closely followed the shadow docket, counts at least 41 requests for “emergency relief” submitted to the Court from the Trump administration, compared with eight under the Obama and Bush administrations combined. And he counts only four occasions during the Trump administration on which the Court denied “the government’s request outright.” That deference has not continued into the Biden administration.
“During the Trump administration, it was on the shadow docket that basically all of Trump’s controversial immigration policies affecting millions of people were allowed to go into effect, including the travel ban,” Vladeck told me. “During the Biden administration … perhaps the biggest shadow-docket ruling so far was the ruling last week that froze and effectively killed the CDC’s revised eviction moratorium.”
Under Trump, the justices allowed policies such as the administration’s travel ban targeted at mostly Muslim nations, its prohibition against trans people serving in the military, and its restrictions on asylum to go into effect. Under Biden, they have barred the administration’s attempt to prevent evictions because of the coronavirus pandemic and accepted a lower-court ruling demanding that the White House reimpose the controversial Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced migrants into “precarious conditions in dangerous Mexican border cities where thousands became victims of kidnappings, rapes and extortion,” according to The Washington Post. The decision compels the Biden administration to renegotiate an agreement with a foreign country reached during a prior administration; deference to the president’s constitutional authority to set foreign policy, which the justices had memorably cited in Trump-era cases, was suddenly absent.
“What is so troubling about this trend is its continuing acceleration, not in volume, but in quality,” Vladeck said. “The Court seems increasingly untroubled by deciding big questions that affect lots of people this way.” Having a conservative-dominated tribunal determine such questions, however, is an ideal arrangement for a party that has not won a majority of the votes in a presidential election since Tobey Maguire was Spider-Man, and that sees the popular majorities that vote against it as composed of illegitimate semi-citizens who have no right to govern.
The shadow docket has begun to look less like a place for emergency cases than one where the Republican-appointed justices can implement their preferred policies without having to go through the tedious formalities of following legal procedure, developing arguments consistent with precedent, or withstanding public scrutiny. And so after initially allowing the Texas law banning abortion before most women know they are actually pregnant to go into effect, five conservative justices told Republican-controlled states they could disregard Roe while insisting that wasn’t what they were doing at all.
Instead, the justices in the majority argued in their unsigned opinion that because the case presented “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions,” their hands were tied. This is ludicrously dishonest. If Texas passed a law granting $10,000 bounties to private citizens if they sued anyone who held or enabled an indoor church service during the pandemic, the Court’s conservative wing would not feign confusion about whether the constitutional right to freedom of worship had been violated because of the supposed novelty of the scheme.
This ruling is less a description of a complex legal challenge than a road map. As Mary Ziegler writes, the Texas law was strategically designed to evade legal restrictions, and the majority read the script that was handed to it. Republican-run legislatures now know that they can pass such laws and the Supreme Court will pretend to be unable to block them.
Among the Republican appointees, only Chief Justice John Roberts had enough respect for the right’s purported doctrines of judicial minimalism to vote to wait for the case to reach the high court through normal procedural channels. Ironically, though, the unsigned majority decision reflects a careful study of Roberts’s years of successfully managing the Court’s reputation. The decision does not say “Roe is hereby overruled,” but it tells states exactly how they can effectively ban abortion if they want to. In that, it echoes Roberts’s own tendency to hide his preferred outcomes behind legal technicalities, the better to mime fidelity to constitutional principle.
“Although the Court denies the applicants’ request for emergency relief today, the Court’s order is emphatic in making clear that it cannot be understood as sustaining the constitutionality of the law at issue,” Roberts wrote in his dissent. But because five justices allowed the law to go into effect—and by implication, laws in any other state that wishes to emulate Texas—Roe has been neutralized. The only question is whether that decision is temporary, and whether the Court will eventually enact any restraints on the particular legal scheme Texas has pioneered.
“I don’t think those in the reproductive-rights community who are sounding the alarm that [the Court] really effectively overruled Roe in Texas are being hyperbolic,” Murray told me yesterday, prior to the Court’s written opinion. “The fact that the Supreme Court of the United States allows a law that patently contradicts its own statements about the right to an abortion to go into effect is essentially the Court signaling that it does not care about this right and it does not think this right should exist.”
Neutralizing Roe through normal channels would have taken time, and the Supreme Court’s conservatives did not want to wait. Thanks to the shadow docket, they didn’t have to. Five conservative justices invalidated the constitutional right to an abortion simply because they could, because they felt like it, and because they don’t believe anyone can stop them.
Though Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in every single election since 1992, except one, Republicans have managed to secure a far-right majority on the US Supreme Court. As a result, the Court’s claim to be a neutral, non-partisan arbiter for pressing constitutional questions is quickly losing credibility.
.. the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the Supreme Court marks the culmination of a decades-long campaign by the right-wing Federalist Society to reshape the judiciary. For those devout conservatives and their monied backers, faced with the prospect of massive demographic and generational shifts in the country’s body politic, the strategy has long been to find a way to limit severely access to authentic democratic governance in the United States for generations to come. They now seem on the verge of achieving their goal.
.. since 1988, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote in presidential elections – the only consistent measure of national voter intent – just once, when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 after a period of national unification following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In every other presidential election (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016), the Democratic candidate won more votes than the Republican candidate.
.. considerable evidence has accumulated that Thomas acceded to that seat by committing perjury during his Senate confirmation hearings.
.. Nine years later, Thomas would go on to join the 5-4 majority in Bush v. Gore, in which the Court ruled that Florida’s 2000 election recount must stop. In doing so, he helped hand the presidency to the son of the man who had appointed him, and denied it to Al Gore, who had won the national popular ballot by more than 500,000 votes.
.. So obtuse was the majority’s written opinion in that case that the ruling actually came with a remarkable disclaimer that it should never be cited as precedent in the future.
.. In 2005, he appointed the current chief justice, John Roberts, to replace William Rehnquist; and in 2006 he appointed Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O’Connor.
.. Obama bent over backwards to assuage them, nominating Merrick Garland, the moderate Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
.. Mitch McConnell, succeeded in stymieing the president’s constitutional authority to appoint Supreme Court justices with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
It bears mentioning that, at this time, the 54 Republicans in the Senate had collectively received 20 million fewer votes than their 46 Democratic colleagues. The Republicans owed their majority strictly to the Senate’s anti-democratic composition, whereby each state is represented by two senators
.. This scheme was one of many concessions made to slave states during the drafting of the Constitution, and with the rise of urbanization, it has come to have an increasingly distortionary effect on American politics. For example, Wyoming’s two senators represent 563,767 people (according to the 2010 census), whereas California’s senators represent 37,254,518.
.. Moreover, Clinton achieved her high popular-vote margin despite widespread voter-disenfranchisement campaigns aimed at Democratic-leaning voters in states controlled by Republicans.
.. In Florida, where elections are regularly notoriously close, more than 1.5 million citizens (over 10% of the state’s total number of adults, and one in five African-Americans) are denied the vote owing to nonviolent criminal convictions, even after they have served their time in prison.
.. Despite having no democratic mandate to speak of, Trump and the Senate Republicans wasted no time in confirming Neil Gorsuch to Garland’s rightful seat on theCourt.
.. Kavanaugh was selected by a president who has been implicated in a felony allegedly committed in pursuit of the office he now holds. That alone calls into question Trump’s legitimacy. But he is also the subject of an unprecedented investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with a hostile foreign power – an investigation that has already resulted in more than 20 guilty pleas or felony convictions.
.. Kavanaugh, a member of the legal team that persuaded the Supreme Court to hand Bush the presidency in 2000 (thereby hastening the whole grim cavalcade of misbegotten) was most likely selected for his conspicuous support of executive authority in the past. His interpretation of the president’s powers seems to brook no limits, and would likely open the door for Trump to ignore a grand-jury subpoena and even shut down the investigation of his campaign.
.. With his party still enjoying a two-vote (minority-elected) majority in the Senate, McConnell has shown no compunction about ramming Kavanaugh’s dubious nomination through that body. That leaves no alternative but to consider the dire implications of a Supreme Court dominated by the Misbegotten Majority: Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh. What will this judicial coup mean for reproductive, criminal, labor, and civil rights?
.. More to the point, one of the main threats posed by the new Court is what it will do to voting rights and the laws governing elections – that is, the democratic process itself. Decisions that bear on the outcomes of elections could very well upend the functioning of the other two branches of government, thereby blocking all other possible avenues of redress available within theConstitution’s wider system of checks and balances.
.. Of course, this has been the Republicans’ idea all along. For decades, the Federalist Society, which has overseen all of Trump’s judicial nominations, has understood that cultural and demographic trends are poised to strip the power of its wealthy, predominantly white male sponsors. That cohort is in the process of dying out, and the majority of future voters – and, indeed, current voters, judging by recent popular-vote counts – will be younger, more diverse, more tolerant, and considerably further to the left on economic matters.
To forestall this outcome of democracy, conservatives’ first instinct was to limit the franchise itself. The broad demographic and generational changes underway could be nullified by denying key constituencies the right to vote. And when that wasn’t possible, the next best option was to tamper with electoral outcomes by means of untraceable “dark money” and gerrymandering. The result is that Austin, Texas, one of the most liberal cities in America, is represented in the House of Representatives by four Republicans and just one Democrat; and North Carolina, a state that is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, is represented by ten Republicans and just three Democrats.
.. He was also on board for the decimation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which for a half-century had prevented blatant racial discrimination in districts with documented histories of disenfranchising African-Americans and members of other minority groups. And he routinely passed the buck on gerrymandering cases.
.. Citing so-called states’ rights, the Court might start by overturning a recent 3-0 federal circuit court decision ordering North Carolina to redraw its egregiously gerrymandered congressional districts. With that precedent in place, other states will be able to step up their own voter-suppression efforts across the board.
.. For example, some states might decide to deny college students the right to cast absentee ballots, or to vote in jurisdictions where they have not established a permanent residency (or both). Others may think to impose property requirements for voter eligibility, or to “save costs” by shutting down polling stations in, say, Latino neighborhoods.
Still others might require non-drivers to show another form of state-issued identification, which can be acquired only at some remotely located administrative office.
.. retaking the House in 2018 won’t do the Democrats much good as far as the Court is concerned. All of the constitutional checks on the judiciary rest with the Senate.
.. when it comes to voting rights, gerrymandering, and other election-related cases, he has been one of the justices leading the charge from the right.
.. Whereas Democratic presidents have based their appointments to the Court on merit, Republicans have made a point of selecting younger jurists who will remain on the bench for decades.
.. All of this will be justified on the grounds of “originalism” – the FederalistSociety/Scalia doctrine of sticking to the strict letter of the Constitution as intended (according to them) by its authors at the time of its promulgation. Never mind that in 1787, only propertied men took part in the Constitutional Convention, and that a sizeable plurality were slaveholders zealously guarding their right to treat people like chattel.1
.. if individual states try to enact progressive policies on their own, they should be prepared for the Misbegotten Majority suddenly to suspend its much-vaunted devotion to “states’ rights” and strike those down, too. After all, that is the job their sponsors put them there todo. They will not soon forget that they are part of a decades-long project of minority rule.
.. After 2020, more avenues for the proper functioning of checks and balances could open up, especially if the Democrats win the White House and the Senate. Frustrated by their democratically legitimate legislation being scuttled by a misbegotten Court, they could see fit to draft articles of impeachment against Thomas.
.. The journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson have marshaled clear evidence that Thomas lied under oath throughout his confirmation hearing on matters pertaining to his past behavior toward female co-workers and subordinates. And Kavanaugh himself may be facing similar jeopardy with regard to possible perjury in his own confirmation processes.
.. Alternatively, Democrats could pick up where former President Franklin D. Roosevelt left off, by trying to expand the size of the Court, which can be achieved through legislation. But, given the squishiness of swing-state Democrats, a court-packing gambit could fail, as it did with Roosevelt; or, even worse, it could backfire by setting a dangerous precedent for Republicans to follow when they return to power.
.. America would hardly be the first democracy in history to succumb to plutocratic autocracy verging on fascism.
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.