Evidence from recent Supreme Court arguments suggests that the chief justice, like most people, may have ideological and gender blind spots.
Chief Justice John Roberts would like us to think that Supreme Court justices are mere umpires who “don’t make the rules” but simply “apply them.”
When President Trump criticized what he saw as an unreasonable ruling by an “Obama judge,” the chief justice said, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.”
Yet at Supreme Court oral arguments, chief justices have applied rules of the court with very real differences among justices depending on their partisan appointment: Justices appointed by Democrats have been interrupted more frequently than justices appointed by Republicans. And women have been interrupted more frequently than men.
And recently, as the court conducted oral arguments over the phone, it was Chief Justice Roberts himself who did the uneven interrupting in his role as timekeeper.
The pattern of interruptions reflects the reality that Supreme Court justices, like everyone else, are susceptible to bias. It is an unfortunate reality that women are often perceived as talking too much even though studies show that they talk less than men. And it is also the case that people like to hear things they already believe — and interrupt those with whom they disagree.
The same pattern manifests at the Supreme Court.
Normally, Supreme Court arguments are unstructured sessions in which any justice can ask any question at any point in the argument. Justices sometimes interrupt one another and the advocates, and some advocates even interrupt justices.
A 2017 study showed that the interruptions at the Supreme Court are both gendered and ideological. The study, which focused on the Roberts court as well as two earlier Supreme Court terms from the Rehnquist and Burger courts, found that female justices were interrupted at disproportionate rates by their male colleagues and by male advocates. Male justices interrupt more than female justices, and male justices interrupt their female colleagues more than their male colleagues. The interruptions do not reflect female justices’ participation in arguments: Female justices do not talk more than their male colleagues.
The same study also showed an ideological bias in interruptions. Both Democratic-appointed and Republican-appointed justices are more likely to interrupt a justice with whom they disagree. But the conservative justices interrupt their liberal colleagues at higher rates than the liberal justices interrupt their conservative colleagues.
The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened these divisions. Last month, the court held oral arguments over the phone, and the justices spoke in order of seniority.
The new format shifted more responsibility to the chief justice. In the court’s usual argument structure, the chief justice’s role is to “referee” among justices when more than one speak at the same time. But in the new format, the chief justice was tasked with ensuring that each justice had the opportunity to speak for roughly the same amount of time. That gave the chief justice the power to decide when to end each justice’s time for questions (unless the questioning justice concluded it).
Looking at all the cases together — 10 in total — the chief justice arguably succeeded at being evenhanded. The justices who spoke the most, per questioning period that they used, were Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who represent different wings of the court. Justice Samuel Alito also spoke for a similar amount of time.
But the devil is in the details, and in some striking respects, the chief justice fell short of the ideal of the neutral umpire. The three justices who were allowed to speak the most in the very politically salient cases — the two cases about the president and one about access to contraception under the Affordable Care Act — were conservative men: Justice Brett Kavanaugh had two of the longest amounts of time in a case, and Justice Alito had the other. The justices who received the three longest individual questioning periods were also all conservative men: Justice Alito had two such periods, and Justice Gorsuch had the other. By contrast, the justices who received the three shortest questioning periods that the chief justice ended were all liberal women: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had two, and Justice Elena Kagan had the other.
When it came to the controversial topic of a woman’s right to contraception access, the conservative Justice Alito was given over a minute and a half longer than the longest questioning period by a justice appointed by a Democratic president — or any of the female justices.
There were also notable differences in whom the chief justice interrupted or cut off. The chief justice ended questioning periods nearly 160 times, typically by interrupting an advocate or concluding after an advocate’s response to another justice’s question. But on 11 occasions, the chief justice interrupted or cut off another justice. Every one of those 11 occasions involved justices who were appointed by Democratic presidents, and nine of the 11 involved female justices.
That is not because the female or Democratic-appointed justices were taking more time. The chief justice interrupted Justice Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer even though they used less time than a majority of their colleagues, including Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh, whom the chief justice never once interrupted.
Justice Ginsburg, a senior member of the court, participated from her hospital bed on some days. But the chief justice did not lend her great deference, ending more of her questioning periods than that of the newest member, Justice Kavanaugh, even though she spoke, on average, over 10 seconds less per questioning period than he did. Ten seconds may not sound like much, but is more than enough time to get out an additional question or at least a remark about how an advocate’s claims are unpersuasive.
Similarly, the chief justice ended many more of Justice Sotomayor’s questioning periods than Justice Gorsuch’s, even though they spoke, on average, the same amount of time per questioning period and even though he had two of the six longest questioning periods and she had none.
To be fair to the chief justice, this was an unusual arrangement, and at the same time that he was supposed to be keeping the justices to their time limits, he was also participating in the arguments as a questioner and as a decision maker. By any standard, he had a difficult job.
Still, his uneven application of the rules was not random. It was gendered and ideological, as interruptions have been in previous courts. But it is possible that having these new demands, he could not or did not devote sufficient attention to checking his own biases.
The justices promise to be neutral, but the fact is that they are human with real human biases that affect their decisions. Oral arguments are just another occasion where that comes through.
It’s possible that with experience, Chief Justice Roberts will take corrective steps. If the court continues to have arguments on the phone into the next term, someone else, such as the clerk of the court or the counselor to the chief justice, could keep time and end questioning periods rather than the chief justice.
And if the court reverts to its usual argument, Chief Justice Roberts might want to keep a running tally of who interrupts and whom he allows to speak. Because as much as we may want the chief justice to be a neutral umpire, that is not what we have seen this month at the Supreme Court.
In his new book, ‘Supreme Inequality,’ lawyer/journalist Adam Cohen makes the case that the Supreme Court has been “a right-wing court for 50 years,” siding with corporations and the wealthy — and against the poor.
In the clash over Robert H. Bork’s nomination, Joe Biden’s moderate instincts defined a winning strategy.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. was on the brink of victory, but he was unsatisfied.
Mr. Biden, the 44-year-old chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was poised to watch his colleagues reject President Ronald Reagan’s formidable nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert H. Bork. The vote was unlikely to be close. Yet Mr. Biden was hovering in the Senate chamber, plying Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, a Republican of modestly conservative politics and regal bearing, with arguments about Bork’s record.
Rejecting a Supreme Court nominee was an extraordinary act of defiance, and Mr. Biden did not want a narrow vote that could look like an act of raw partisan politics.
“We already had Bork beat,” said Mark Gitenstein, who was then chief counsel to Mr. Biden’s committee. “But Biden really wanted to get Warner because he had such stature.”
Mr. Biden’s entreaties prevailed: Mr. Warner became one of 58 senators to vote against Bork, and one of six Republicans.
The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons. The vote ensured that the court’s swing seat would not go to a man with a long history of criticizing rulings on the rights of African-Americans and women. It also enraged a generation of conservatives and transformed the judge’s name into an ominous verb: Fearful of getting “Borked,” no nominee would ever again speak so freely about his views as Bork did.
The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Robert H. Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons.
It was also a personal turning point for Mr. Biden. In the Bork debate, Mr. Biden’s political ethos found its most vivid and successful expression.
A review of Mr. Biden’s conduct in the debate — including interviews with 16 people directly involved in the nomination fight, and a review of the hearings and Mr. Biden’s speeches — yielded a portrait of Mr. Biden as an ambitious young senator determined to achieve a vital liberal goal by decidedly unradical means.
The strategy Chairman Biden deployed then is the same one he is now proposing to bring to the White House as President Biden.
In the 1980s, as today, he saw bipartisan compromise not as a version of surrender, but as a vital tool for achieving Democratic goals.
Then, as now, Mr. Biden saw the culture and traditions of the Senate not as crippling obstacles, but as instruments that could be bent to his advantage.
And in both defining moments — his leadership of the Bork hearings and his third presidential campaign — Mr. Biden made persuading moderates, rather than exciting liberals, his guiding objective.
Mr. Biden, whose campaign declined to make him available for an interview, has strained to defend this approach in the 2020 presidential primary, offering only a halting rationale for a political worldview that other Democrats see as out of date. His rivals have branded him as a timid and even reactionary figure — a creature of the Senate cloakroom who partnered with former segregationists to pass draconian anti-crime legislation and joined with the business lobby to tighten bankruptcy laws.
And Mr. Biden’s opponents point not to the Bork hearings but a different confirmation battle as proof that his instincts are flawed. Four years after Bork was defeated, Mr. Biden would again take an accommodating approach to his Republican colleagues during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, allowing harsh and invasive questioning of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused the nominee of sexual harassment. Mr. Biden would later express “regret” for the treatment she endured.
But he has never regretted the conciliatory style that led him to triumph against Bork. In that process, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans — men like Mr. Warner.
Now 92, Mr. Warner said in an interview that his memories of the Bork hearings had grown foggy over the years. But two impressions were indelible, he said. The first concerned Reagan’s nominee: “I never encountered a man with a shorter temper,” Mr. Warner said.
The second concerned the caliber of the Senate’s deliberations.
“It was a real, solid, good debate, led by Biden,” Mr. Warner said. “He showed extraordinary leadership.”
The outcome was not foreordained, for either Bork or Mr. Biden. The debate unfolded at a moment of humiliation for Mr. Biden, whose first campaign for president unraveled as the Bork hearings approached their climax. And the judge was no timid adversary, as the journalist Ethan Bronner wrote in a book on the nomination.
“Robert Bork,” Mr. Bronner wrote, “was a man of war.”
Mr. Biden was seated behind a desk in a spacious living room adjoining his study at his Wilmington, Del., home. A few aides sat or stood around the room, where pizza was in generous supply. Squared off against Mr. Biden was Robert H. Bork — or rather, a convincing simulacrum played by the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe.
Mr. Tribe and Mr. Biden would spar for hours in a series of sessions that August, joined occasionally by other legal experts who would help Mr. Biden hone his queries on subjects from antitrust regulation to sexual privacy.
“Biden’s questions were really smart, and they also needed some sharpening,” Mr. Tribe said in an interview, citing Mr. Biden’s tendency to “ask one thing and mean something slightly different.”
Mr. Biden came to those training sessions by a jagged path, shaped by pressure from progressive activists and the delicate politics of the Judiciary Committee. He was arming himself to oppose Bork, but not with the methods of the left.
On the day Bork was nominated, liberals viewed Mr. Biden with suspicion. Taking over one of the Senate’s great committees at a boyish — for the Senate — age of 44, Mr. Biden had already split with progressives on the issue of busing as a means of desegregating schools. Until Bork, the authors Michael Pertschuk and Wendy Schaetzel would write, Mr. Biden “had been reluctant to challenge Reagan’s transformation of the federal judiciary.”
The previous November, the soon-to-be chairman had given liberals new reason for concern, suggesting to The Philadelphia Inquirer that he might one day vote to put Bork on the Supreme Court, should he be Reagan’s next nominee.
“I’m not Teddy Kennedy,” he told the newspaper.
When Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a flexible conservative, resigned from the court in late June, Mr. Biden found himself in the shadow of Kennedy, the party’s leading liberal, and laboring to reconcile his own moderate instincts with a mood of alarm on the left. When the White House announced Bork’s nomination on the first day of July, Kennedy delivered a thunderous warning from the Senate floor: In “Robert Bork’s America,” Kennedy said,
- “women would be forced into back-alley abortions,
- blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”
The scathing address was a call to arms for the left, and it helped animate a coalition of progressives — led by feminists, civil rights activists and labor unions — that applied pressure to undecided senators throughout the summer.
“His record was so extensive, and it touched almost every issue of importance to American life,” said Nan Aron, a leading anti-Bork activist. “It wasn’t simply a single issue that caused people to be alarmed.”
Another purpose of Kennedy’s speech, his allies have said, was to ensure Mr. Biden would not cave.
“One of the reasons for ‘Robert Bork’s America’ was to freeze Biden,” Jeffrey Blattner, a Kennedy aide, would say decades later, in an oral history for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. “He’s running for president. We didn’t want to leave him any choice.”
Mr. Biden quickly aligned himself with Kennedy, and, at his liberal colleague’s urging, secured an agreement from Senator Strom Thurmond — the 84-year-old former segregationist who was the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican — to delay Bork’s hearings until September.
“Biden was under a lot of pressure, particularly from the liberal senators,” said former Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, a centrist Democrat who said he began the confirmation process favorably disposed toward Bork. “At first, I was leaning strongly to vote for him.”
Even as he pledged to oppose Bork, Mr. Biden made clear to progressive leaders in a private meeting that he saw his role as sharply distinct from theirs. He would play an inside game aimed at swaying Senate moderates, starting with the four undecided members of his committee:
- Mr. DeConcini and two other Democrats,
- Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and
- Howell Heflin of Alabama, and a Republican,
- Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Ralph Neas, a civil rights activist who joined the liberals’ initial meeting with Mr. Biden, said the chairman conveyed “that he would take the lead and we would try to put together a bipartisan coalition.”
“Biden’s street cred with a lot of the centrists was quite high,” Mr. Neas said.
Mr. Biden was blunter with his aides: He would not adopt Kennedy’s rhetoric or make abortion his central cause. According to a book Mr. Gitenstein published in 1992 about the confirmation fight, Mr. Biden feared Bork would overturn Roe v. Wade but told aides he did not see the case as “great constitutional law.” More disturbing to him — and, he believed, more likely to sway undecided voters — was a Connecticut case on contraception that revealed Bork’s doubts about a broader right to privacy.
“It really concerns me more than abortion,” Mr. Biden is quoted as saying in the book.
In their sessions, Mr. Tribe said, the future vice president wrestled not just with Bork’s record but also with the idea of disqualifying nominees based on individual issues.
“I remember pushing back on Biden, saying, ‘If you think Roe v. Wade really ought to be the law of the land, shouldn’t that count?’” Mr. Tribe recalled. “He said, ‘Yes, it should count a lot, but I still don’t want to have a flat litmus test.’”
Mr. Tribe remembered thinking: “This guy’s a little bit more cautious than I am. But that’s fine, he’s playing a different role.”
Mr. Biden’s self-assigned role was readily apparent as the Bork hearings began in mid-September. Beaming down at the judge from a crowded dais, Mr. Biden praised him as man of towering achievement and “provocative” views. Flanked by Kennedy at one elbow and Thurmond at the other, Mr. Biden said the hearings should not be “clouded by strident rhetoric from the far left or the far right.”
“Anytime you feel you want to expand on an answer, you are not bound by time,” Mr. Biden encouraged Bork, adding in a tone of levity, “Go ahead and bog us down.”
In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.
In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.CreditJose
The judge, bearded and broad shouldered, did not recognize the trap.
Few men could have been more prepared to face a constitutional interrogation. A former Yale Law School professor who served as the country’s solicitor general and, amid the maelstrom of Watergate, as acting attorney general, Bork brought to the hearings a reputation for quick eloquence and utter mastery of the law.
Mr. Biden had no such reputation, and the columnist George F. Will spoke for much of Washington when he predicted Bork would be “more than a match for Biden.”
The chairman gave his colleagues wide latitude to question Bork, whose testimony consumed five days. It culminated in an unusual Saturday hearing that was dominated by an hourslong debate between Bork and Specter, a former district attorney who frequently rode the Amtrak rails with Mr. Biden, about the meaning of constitutional intent. Mr. Biden had offered Specter half an hour for his questions; when Specter balked at the time limit, Mr. Biden relented and opened the way for a crucial exchange.
“His debate with my father on constitutional law did reveal him to be not sufficiently respectful of precedent, which pushed my father against him, and pushed other swing senators against him,” said Shanin Specter, the senator’s son and a Philadelphia lawyer. “It would not have happened if Biden, as chair, hadn’t permitted the hearings to go exactly as long as they needed to go.”
Mr. Biden sought, too, to quash attacks on Bork that he saw as risking political backlash. He shot down a plan to ambush Bork with a recording of a speech he gave in 1985, insisting on sharing it with the judge before airing it in the committee. And Mr. Biden and his aides refused a request from a number of prominent activists, including Ralph Nader, to testify in opposition to Bork. The left was applying powerful pressure from outside the Senate, but Mr. Biden preferred that its leaders stay there — on the outside.
Ms. Aron, who would later clash with Mr. Biden over the nomination of Justice Thomas in 1991, said the combination of popular pressure on the Senate and Mr. Biden’s high-minded hearings doomed the nominee.
“What defeated Robert Bork was public pressure,” Ms. Aron said. “But what allowed the public to engage was a review of Bork’s record.”
And Bork did himself few favors: While he assured senators, in his rumbling voice, that he would not overturn rulings capriciously, he struggled to explain away past comments decrying “dozens” of shoddy Supreme Court decisions or deriding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or ridiculing the concept of a constitutional right to privacy. He startled even some allies by describing as “troublesome” the reasoning behind a 1954 case desegregating public schools in the nation’s capital.
In his questions, Mr. Biden posed as a mere mortal grappling with the ideas of a giant.
“Clearly, I do not want to get into a debate with a professor,” Mr. Biden stressed, prodding Mr. Bork about the Griswold v. Connecticut case that ended a state prohibition on birth control: “As I hear you, you do not believe there is a general right of privacy that is in the Constitution.”
“Not one derived in that fashion,” Bork said of the popular decision. “There may be other arguments, and I do not want to pass upon those.”
Watching Bork’s testimony, his political backers knew he was losing. He was articulate, but he was also argumentative. His knowledge of the law was powerful, his political antennae were not.
“I can’t blame Biden,” reflected Tom Korologos, the Republican lobbyist tasked with ushering Bork onto the court. “I blame Bork and Specter, and the other senators, for going on and on.”
Every swing vote on Mr. Biden’s committee swung against Bork, sending him to the floor with a negative recommendation by a vote of 9 to 5. The White House offered Bork the chance to withdraw; he chose martyrdom instead.
His supporters gave him that much, accusing Bork’s opponents of bowing to activists like Mr. Neas and Ms. Aron. “The man’s been trashed in our house,” Senator John Danforth, Republican of Missouri, lamented on the Senate floor. “Some of us helped generate the trashing. Others of us yielded to it.”
Mr. Biden called Mr. Danforth’s complaint an insult to the Senate.
“I have a higher opinion of the ability of my colleagues to do what’s right than, apparently, the senator from Missouri does,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s approach to the Bork nomination was a legislative and political success, one he experienced as personal redemption after his presidential candidacy crumbled. It brought to maturity the strategic instincts that defined him in subsequent battles — including his contested stewardship of the Thomas hearings — and that shape his candidacy today.
The fate of Mr. Biden’s campaign, and perhaps a future presidency, may hinge on whether that version of leadership, defined by collegiality and adherence to procedure, can inspire Democrats and coax cooperation from Republicans. In the presidential race, there is no Ted Kennedy to sound a trumpet for the left while Mr. Biden plays a methodical inside game. And there are no Republicans to be found in the Senate like Specter, who eventually, at Mr. Biden’s urging, quit the G.O.P. to become a Democrat before his death in 2012.
Still, Mr. Gitenstein said he had encouraged the former vice president to draw public attention to his role in the 1987 court fight. The defeat of Robert Bork averted a solidly conservative majority, handing the court’s decisive seat to the more pliant Anthony M. Kennedy, who became a decisive figure in a generation’s worth of eclectic rulings on subjects from campaign finance and union rights to abortion and the legal definition of marriage.
“I don’t think he or anyone else makes enough of the fact that, but for Biden, Roe would be dead 30 years ago, and, but for Biden, we wouldn’t have the gay marriage decision,” Mr. Gitenstein said. “I’ve talked to him about it. He’s got so much on his platter.”
Mr. DeConcini, who at 82 is a supporter of Mr. Biden’s campaign, said he hoped a strategy of moderation could prevail again.
But he admitted to having doubts.
“I’d like to think so, I really would,” Mr. DeConcini said. “I’m just not sure.”
The decision in the census case suggests President Trump can no longer take the court for granted.
A cynic might say that with his two major decisions on the last day of the Supreme Court term a week ago, Chief Justice John Roberts saved both the Republican Party and the court — first by shutting the federal courts’ door to claims of partisan gerrymandering, a practice in which both political parties indulge but that Republicans have perfected to a high art, and then by refusing to swallow the Trump administration’s dishonest rationale for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
President Trump, having placed two justices on the Supreme Court, had taken to treating the court as a wholly owned subsidiary, and not without some justification. It was the court, after all, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, joined by the other four Republican-appointed justices, that saved the president’s Muslim travel ban a year ago. But the chief justice’s opinion in the census case last week blew a hole in what appeared to be a protective firewall that the president can no longer take for granted.
I’m not joining the cynics, especially now that the citizenship question is dead — or so it seemed on Tuesday, based on the Justice Department’s assertion to the federal district judge handling a companion case in Maryland that the census forms were being printed without the citizenship question. On Wednesday, a furious President Trump ordered the Justice Department to reverse course; what followed was a telephone colloquy between that federal judge, George Hazel, and the lawyers for which the word bizarre is a breathtaking understatement. “I can’t possibly predict at this juncture what exactly is going to happen,” Joshua Gardner, a Justice Department lawyer, told the judge, who gave the administration until Friday afternoon to get its story straight.
It would take a heart of stone not to feel sorry for the administration’s lawyers, faced with defending the indefensible. As they recognized 24 hours earlier, the chief justice’s opinion in fact left no wiggle room. Once the behavior of Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, was called out by the Supreme Court of the United States, the president was trapped — and now his lawyers are caught in his net. Maybe they can find a way around the chief justice’s decision, but I don’t think so.
Here’s why: Once the court rejected the administration’s stated rationale as phony — or “contrived,” as Chief Justice Roberts put it more politely in agreeing with Federal District Judge Jesse Furman that improved enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was not Secretary Ross’s real motive — the administration might have tried to come up with some other politically palatable explanation. That would almost certainly have failed, because courts generally will not accept what they call “post hoc rationalizations,” explanations cooked up under pressure and after the fact. But even if such a ploy had succeeded, its very success would have proved Secretary Ross to have been a liar all along.
The citizenship question is now history, fortunately, but this whole episode is too fascinating, too important for the country and the court, to put behind us just yet. So in this column, I want to probe the census decision itself, both for what it tells us about the court and for what it might suggest about the next test of the relationship between the president and the court that he has so recently regarded as his very own. That is the question of the validity of the president’s rescission of the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama-era policy that now protects the “dreamers,” some 700,000 young undocumented people brought to this country as children, from being thrown out of the only country they have ever known. The court will hear that case in its next term, and there are some striking parallels with the census case that just might leave the Trump administration empty-handed again.
But first, the census case. I’ve been obsessed with imagining whatever dark night of the soul preceded the chief justice’s last-minute decision to shift course and reject the administration’s position.
I readily admit that I have no sources for the claim I just made. I have no proof that Chief Justice Roberts initially voted with the administration and talked himself out of that position sometime during the two months that elapsed between the April argument and the June decision. But I’ve been reading Supreme Court decisions for a very long time, and the opinions that provide the holding — the chief justice’s plus the partially concurring opinion of Justice Stephen Breyer for the court’s four liberals — have all the hallmarks of judicial tectonic plates that shifted late in the day to produce an outcome that none of the players anticipated at the start.
To begin with the chief justice’s opinion: The first 22 of its 28 pages are an argument for why the decision by Secretary Ross to add the citizenship question to the census was a reasonable one that fell squarely within his authority. Noting that Mr. Ross rejected the advice of Census Bureau experts and decided to proceed despite the risk of depressing the response rate, Chief Justice Roberts writes, “That decision was reasonable and reasonably explained, particularly in light of the long history of the citizenship question on the census.”
Then suddenly, on page 23, the opinion’s tone changes as the chief justice reviews the finding by Federal District Judge Furman that Secretary Ross’s explanation for why he wanted the citizenship question in the first place was a pretext. The official story was that it would help the Department of Justice — which was said to have requested the addition of the question — to better enforce the Voting Rights Act on behalf of members of minority groups. In fact, as Judge Furman determined from the evidence, it was Secretary Ross who solicited the Justice Department’s request, and whatever the secretary’s motivation, the reason he gave wasn’t the real one.
“We are presented,” Chief Justice Roberts observes dryly, “with an explanation for agency action that is incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decision making process.” He continues:
“The reasoned explanation requirement of administrative law, after all, is meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public. Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”
Justice Breyer’s opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, is almost as long as the chief justice’s. Nearly all of it reads like a dissent, arguing that Secretary Ross’s rejection of his own experts’ advice made the addition of the citizenship question unreasonable as a matter of law, “arbitrary and capricious” in the language of the Administrative Procedure Act. Only in Justice Breyer’s concluding paragraphs is there anything that reads like a concurrence: “I agree that the pretextual nature of the secretary’s decision provides a sufficient basis to affirm the District Court’s decision to send the matter back to the agency.” It’s hard to read these few paragraphs as anything other than a last-minute addition to a carefully crafted dissenting opinion, one that had rather suddenly become superfluous.
There were two other opinions filed in the case, one by Justice Clarence Thomas that was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and another by Justice Samuel Alito. Both disagreed vigorously with the chief justice’s bottom line. All four opinions scrupulously avoided any mention of what everybody knew: that documents brought to light in the weeks following the April 23 argument showed that the citizenship question was part of a plan not to help minority groups vote, but the opposite. The plan was to create and entrench Republican majorities in state legislatures by providing data for use if the Supreme Court gives the green light to counting only eligible voters in legislative redistricting. Conservative groups are poised to send such a case to the Supreme Court in the near future, part of a strategy to keep rapidly diversifying red states like Texas from turning blue.
There is no doubt that the justices were aware of this late-breaking development; during the days leading up to the decision, one of the plaintiff groups challenging the citizenship question had filed a brief with the court detailing the findings from the computer files of a recently deceased Republican redistricting specialist. If I’m right about the chief justice’s late-in-the-day change of heart, did these revelations play a part, even a subconscious one? That’s more speculation than even I am willing to engage in. Suffice it to say that it’s hard to imagine the administration’s litigating position undermined in a more devastating fashion.
It’s that observation that brings me to the DACA case. The court will actually hear three DACA cases, consolidated for a single argument and decision. All three are appeals by the administration of rulings that have barred it from carrying out its decision, announced in September 2017, to “unwind” the program. At issue are two Federal District Court opinions and a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that upheld a ruling by a federal district judge in San Francisco, William Alsup. The opinions differ slightly, but all found that the administration’s termination of DACA for the reason the administration has provided would violate the Administrative Procedure Act.
Here’s where the administration is caught. Its stated reason, as expressed by the acting secretary of homeland security on orders from the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, was that DACA lacked statutory authority and was unconstitutional. At the heart of the administration’s appeal is the assertion that the federal courts lack jurisdiction to interfere with the “Executive Branch’s authority to revoke a discretionary policy of nonenforcement that is sanctioning an ongoing violation of federal immigration law by nearly 700,000 aliens.”
That is a very difficult position for the administration to maintain because it presents to the courts a question not of policy but of law. The administration would have a strong case for judicial deference if it described its rejection of DACA as a matter of enforcement priorities that differ from those of the previous administration. But by claiming that “the law is making us do it,” the administration is serving up the federal judges a question at the heart of their jurisdiction: What does the law require?
As Judge John D. Bates of the Federal District Court in Washington observed in his opinion, the administration provided only a few sentences of legal analysis to back up its claim. “This scant legal reasoning was insufficient to satisfy the department’s obligation to explain its departure from its prior stated view that DACA was lawful,” Judge Bates explained.
So the question is why the administration failed to offer a policy-based explanation, one that might well have persuaded the lower courts and eased its path to the Supreme Court. One reason might have been to protect the president, who declared shortly after his inauguration that “we are not after the dreamers, we are after the criminals” and that “the dreamers should rest easy.” The reason for going after the dreamers had therefore to be based on a claim of pure law, not a change of heart.
A more cynical explanation — and here I’ll indulge in the cynicism from which I refrained at the beginning of this column — is that in claiming that revoking the policy is required by law and not preference, the administration seeks to avoid accountability for a position that, if it were to prevail, would predictably cause economic disruption and public dismay.
Many policy positions predictably affect hundreds of thousands or millions of people; had Republicans succeeded in gutting the Affordable Care Act, for example, millions of people would have been thrown back into the health care jungle. But we don’t know their names. The DACA recipients, by contrast, have names that are known, not only to the Department of Homeland Security but to their schools, their employers, their communities. One dreamer recently received a Rhodes Scholarship and will not be able to return to the United States from Oxford if the administration wins its case. Others with less exalted achievements are simply getting their degrees, holding down jobs, paying their taxes, raising some 200,000 American-born children and going about their lives in the country they regard as their own.
The dreamers will still be here next April, when the census takers come around; the Supreme Court decision will almost certainly not be issued by then. They will be counted along with the rest of us in the grand decennial enumeration that the Constitution’s framers decreed. And a year from now, we’ll know whether the court that could see through one Trump administration strategy is willing and able to do it a second time.