by Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and Joshua Matz, associate at Robbins Russell LLP and former law clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy from 2014 to 2015. Together, Tribe and Matz wrote Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution.
In 1901, Mr. Dooley—a popular, opinionated comic strip character—explained that “th’ Supreme Coort follows th’ election returns.” Dooley’s view was cynical, political, and slightly unnerving. It was also right, in important respects. Elections matter, especially in polarized times. Nowadays, Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on which election matters, let alone on judicial philosophy or temperament. A Justice selected by Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would, beyond doubt, strive toward a very different future from one selected by Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz.
But as we explain in our book, Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution, no Justice—not a single one—is invariably liberal or conservative. Furthermore, a Justice’s influence on the Court can take many forms, not all of them reducible to vote tallies. This was true of Justice Antonin Scalia and it will be true of his successor. Thus, to better understand what issues lurk on the horizon for any new Justice, it is helpful to see where Scalia stuck to familiar left-right scripts and where he tossed those scripts aside.
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Selected by President Ronald Reagan to be a white knight for judicial conservatism, Scalia largely fulfilled Reagan’s expectations. Waging war on liberalism, Scalia championed the right’s view of gun rights, abortion, campaign finance, voting rights, gay rights, capital punishment, gender equality, racial equality, access to justice, separation of church and state, and federalism. In law schools and op-eds, his name grew synonymous with rigorous, principled conservatism. Even as divergent strands emerged within conservative ranks, Scalia urged the Court to move further and faster rightward—at times, blasting his conservative colleagues for their hesitation. Warren Court rules had to be ripped asunder, not whittled and narrowed. As a rock star of the right, its patron saint and favored son, Scalia made full use of his powers to remake the Nation in a more conservative light.
Within years of arriving at the Court, Scalia had become the left’s black-robed bête noir. His unabashed conservative views—not to mention his slashing rhetoric—offended many liberals, who saw in Scalia’s judgecraft a threat to core constitutional values. Moreover, the frequent alignment of Scalia’s policy preferences with his judicial votes led some to doubt the supposed virtues of his originalist and textualist methods. Charges of hypocrisy and incivility piled up, even as conservatives rallied to the man who finally spoke their truths.
Scalia is often typecast as the conservative Justice—a Republican appointee straight from central casting. While true in many areas of law, this view doesn’t hold water in a few important contexts. In those fields, Scalia upset the standard dichotomy. Given that many of these issues do not evoke uniform liberal/conservative splits, their future is especially uncertain.