Lawrence Baum: Ideology in the Supreme Court

When President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch for a seat on the Supreme Court, Gorsuch was universally regarded as a conservative. Because of that perception, the Senate vote on his confirmation fell almost completely along party lines. Indeed, Court-watchers concluded that his record after he joined the Court late in its 2016-2017 Term was strongly conservative. But what does that mean? One possible answer is that he agreed most often with Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, the justices who were considered the most conservative before Gorsuch joined the Court. But that answer does not address the fundamental question: why are the positions that those three justices took on an array of legal questions considered conservative?

The most common explanation is that liberals and conservatives each start with broad values that they then apply in a logical way to the various issues that arise in the Supreme Court and elsewhere in government. But logic can go only so far to explain the ideological labels of various positions. It is not clear, for instance, why liberals are the strongest proponents of most individual rights that the Constitution protects while conservatives are the most supportive of gun rights. Further, perceptions of issues sometimes change over time, so that what was once considered the liberal position on an issue is no longer viewed that way.

Freedom of expression is a good example of these complexities. Beginning early in the twentieth century, strong support for freedom of speech and freedom of the press was regarded as a liberal position. In the Supreme Court, the justices who were most likely to support those First Amendment rights were its liberals. But in the 1990s that pattern began to change. Since then, when the Court is divided, conservative justices provide support for litigants who argue that their free expression rights have been violated as often as liberals do.

To explain that change, we need to go back to the period after World War I when freedom of expression was established as a liberal cause. At that time, the government policies that impinged the most on free speech were aimed at political groups on the left and at labor unions. Because liberals were more sympathetic than conservatives to those segments of society, it was natural that freedom of expression became identified as a liberal cause in the political world. In turn, liberal Supreme Court justices gave considerably more support to litigants with free expression claims than did their conservative colleagues across the range of cases that the Court decided.

In the second half of the twentieth century, people on the political left rethought some of their assumptions about legal protections for free expression. For instance, they began to question the value of protecting “hate speech” directed at vulnerable groups in society. And they were skeptical about First Amendment challenges to regulations of funding for political campaigns. Meanwhile conservatives started to see freedom of expression in a more positive light, as a protection against undue government interference with political and economic activity.

This change in thinking affected the Supreme Court in the 1990s and after. More free expression cases came to the Court from businesses and people with a conservative orientation, and a conservative-leaning Court was receptive to those cases. The Court now decides few cases involving speech by labor unions and people on the political left, and cases from businesses and political conservatives have become common. Liberal justices are more favorable than their conservative colleagues to free expression claims by people on the left and by individuals with no clear political orientation, but conservative justices provide more support to claims by businesses and conservatives. As a result, what had been a strong tendency for liberal justices to give the most support to freedom of expression across the cases that the Court decided has disappeared.

The sharp change in the Supreme Court’s ideological orientation in free speech cases is an exception to the general rule, but it underlines some important things about the meaning of ideology. The labeling of issue positions as conservative or liberal comes through the development of shared understandings among political elites, and those understandings do not necessarily follow from broad values. In considerable part, they reflect attitudes toward the people and groups that champion and benefit from particular positions. The impact of those attitudes is reflected in the ways that people respond to specific situations involving an issue: liberal and conservative justices, like their counterparts elsewhere in government and politics, are most favorable to free speech when that speech comes from segments of society with which they sympathize. When we think of Supreme Court justices and the positions they take as conservative and liberal, we need to keep in mind that to a considerable degree, the ideological labeling of positions in ideological terms is arbitrary. Justice Gorsuch’s early record on the Court surely is conservative—but in the way that conservative positions have come to be defined in the world of government and politics, definitions that are neither permanent nor inevitable.

BaumLawrence Baum is professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. His books include Judges and Their Audiences, The Puzzle of Judicial BehaviorSpecializing the Courts, and Ideology in the Supreme Court.

James Gibson: Voters Beware! TV ads may damage Supreme Court legitimacy

The right-wing Judicial Crisis Network has launched a $10 million advertising campaign to put public pressure on Democratic politicians who oppose President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While ideological fights over who controls the courts are nothing new, my research suggests that this use of political advertising to sway public opinion of a nominee may do real damage to the the institutional legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court in the eyes of the American people.

In Citizens, Courts, and Confirmations, Gregory Caldeira and I focused on the 2006 nomination of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. During that confirmation battle, proponents and opponents of Alito’s confirmation ran intensely politicized television ads trying to shape public opinion on the nomination.

Using surveys of public opinion, we demonstrated that the ads spilled over to infect support for the Court as an institution, subtracting from its legitimacy. In order to understand how and why this happened, it’s important to consider what political scientists (including Caldeira and I) have discovered is the main source of the Court’s legitimacy.

Despite the arguments of some judges to the contrary, the American people do not believe that judges somehow mystically “find” the law. They realize, instead, that judges’ ideologies matter, that liberal and conservative judges make different decisions, and that they do so on the basis of honest intellectual differences. This philosophy is called “legal realism,” and it is widely embraced by the American people.

But there is a difference between honest ideological differences and the politicization of the courts. When people believe that a judge “is just another politician,” or that courts are filled with such judges, legitimacy suffers. The American people do not think highly of politicians. Politicians are seen as self-interested and insincere. That means one can rarely believe what politicians say because they so rarely say what they believe. It is not ideology that Americans oppose, but rather the insincere and strategic way that contemporary politics is fought.

Our analysis discovered that it is not damaging to the Court when Americans recognize that judges hold different ideologies and that those ideologies strongly influence their decisions. But when judges cross the line, when they engage in overly politicized behavior—either on the bench or off—then the Court’s legitimacy is threatened. Scalia’s intemperate language in his opinions is one such example of judges venturing into partisanship; so, too, is Ginsburg’s attempt to influence last year’s presidential election. Still, events like these do not widely penetrate the consciousness of the American people, and so in the end, they likely have small effects on institutional legitimacy.

The same cannot be said of televised advertisements. Millions of Americans are exposed to these churlish and politicized ads, and so they take their toll. The lesson of these ads is too often the same: The “Supreme Court is just another political institution,” worthy of no more esteem than the other institutions of government. As this belief becomes widespread, the institution of the Court is harmed.

Our analysis demonstrates that while Alito got his seat on the Supreme Court, the court he joined had a diminished supply of goodwill among the Court’s constituents, the American people. It also makes clear that the upcoming nomination fights have implications beyond who does and doesn’t get a seat on the bench. At stake is the very legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court.

GibsonJames L. Gibson is the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government at Washington University. He is the coauthor of Citizens, Courts, and Confirmations: Positivity Theory and the Judgments of the American People.

Colin Dayan: White Dogs on Track in Trump’s America

“Prejudice sets all logic at defiance.”
—Frederick Douglass

Since Donald Trump has brought Frederick Douglass back among the living—“an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more”—I begin with this epigraph. Trump is illogical. Yes. Trump is prejudiced. Yes. But more than that, he might just be our consummate white supremacist. “Bad logic makes good racism,” as I wrote in The Law is a White Dog.

Trump creates a reality that flies in the face of logic. The most fantastic fictions are put forth as the most natural, the most reasonable thing in the world. These fictions endure today in a lexicon of degradation well honed and reiterated by Trump. They create the stigma that adheres to radical states of non-belonging, summoned by him in names such as “thugs” or “criminals,” “rapists” or “terrorists.” Old inequalities and racial discrimination are repackaged in unexpected forms. But these inventions succeed only because they reflect the visceral approval of Trump’s constituency.

Shock and awe: Trump’s extravagant performance of cruelty, outright racism, and rule by executive decree in apparent defiance of law has been called a “constitutional crisis,” described with such adjectives as “unprecedented,” “un-American,” or “unpatriotic.” But we should not forget that his relentless generalizing operates under cover of excessive legalism. Perhaps excess is key to his success. America has always been excessive—not least in its institutionalization of slavery and its subsequent practices of incarceration, unique in the so-called civilized world.

So let’s take a few steps back. Is his touted ban on Muslims unusual? Not at all. Is his specious argument for torture out of the ordinary? Not at all.

Trump’s ban is brutal, but let’s face it, this country boasts a long, sordid history of evacuation. Blood as menacing taint was used during the forced repatriations of Haitians described as “boat people,” “the new migrants,” the “Haitian stampede.” The forced repatriations of Haitians in 1991–92 and the effects of arguments heard by the Supreme Court in March 1993 concerning those placed in custody at Guantanamo (and later on concerning forced removals, in 1994) were not the first nor would they be the last time the US banned “refugees” from our shores. Let’s not forget that as early as 1824, when Thomas Jefferson reflected on emancipation, he asked how “the getting rid” of “people of color” could best be done? He reckoned that in Haiti one might find fit “receptacles for that race of men.”

We have a heritage in America of torture and exclusion. These practices hide behind a veneer of legitimacy just as an idealized federal Constitution long ago abetted both discrimination and inequality. And though we deplore Trump’s wayward antics as a lapse from our normally high standards of respect for human rights, we need to consider the harm that a broad consensus of this country’s citizens has time and again meted out to those considered disposable, dangerous, or unfit. Again, when we hear that Trump’s executive orders are illegal or beyond the rule of law, we need to look hard and long at this country’s history of abusive treatment and discriminatory actions, especially in its prisons and detention centers.

Trump believes that torture—specifically banned interrogation methods such as waterboarding—works. But can it ever be legal? Let’s recall how George W. Bush attempted through White House lawyers to legalize torture. The infamous “torture memos” redefined the meaning of torture and extended the limits of permissible pain. Yet, and this matters, unprecedented as they appeared at the time, they relied—in their often ingenious legal maneuvers—upon at least 30 years of court decisions which gradually eviscerated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Bush needed the so-called “torture memos” (sounds so quaint now) to skirt the rule of law, but this new dispensation needs none of it, since Trump and his cronies have already summoned the sometimes amorphous, always definitive moralistic standards that circumvent the basic tenets of constitutional law. Depending on vague and undefined legal provisos proclaimed by the executive, this regime depends on arbitrary willfulness backed up by police power, or in the case of what Trump calls the “carnage” in Chicago, his tweeted resolve to “send in the Feds.”

Police power is state power, ostensibly activated whenever there is any supposed threat to the health, safety, or welfare of citizens. Since 9/11, the so-called war on terror has widened the net: alleged terrorists, enemy aliens, illegal immigrants, all tarred with the same brush, are easily cast outside the pale of empathy.

Terror and legality go hand in hand. They always have done. Whether we look back to the law of slavery, to the legal fiction of prisoners as slaves of the state, to legalized torture in the “war on terror,” or to the discriminatory profiling and preventive detentions that we characterize as “homeland security,” we see how our society continues to invent the phantasm of criminality, creating a new class of condemned.

The ban and the wall are not exactly new stories. “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”—unless they’re Mexicans, Central Americans, Haitians, blacks, or other undesirables. As I said, we have a long tradition in this country of excluding people of color. But more recently, we have moved on from mass deportations of illegal immigrants. As a “consequence” (in the parlance of border patrol agents) of entering the United States illegally, many tens of thousands of Latinos are regularly subjected to brutal treatment by US Customs and Border Patrol. Trump’s executive order on January 27th barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, supported by nearly 50% of American adults, invites bigotry and its attendant techniques of violence and repression.

Legal rituals give flesh and new life to the remains of lethal codes and penal sanctions. The stigma of slavery—and its legal machinations—has never left us. Its ghosts still haunt our law and hold us in its thrall. The difference now is that Trump incarnates in his person and his words not just prejudice, but bad logic and maleficent law. He is wanton. There’s a lot of history in this word, in its hints of depravity, effeminacy, frivolity, and excess. The term also refers to pitilessness. Glee and malice work together in the abuse of those targeted for humiliation. Trump boasts, blusters, struts, and lies. This lethal affectation is his power.

Colin Dayan is the author of The Law is a White Dog.Dayan

Highlights from the Election 2016 Blog: What’s next?

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This election season, Princeton University Press has been featuring discussion from a variety of authors on the candidates and issues. Here is an overview of the fantastic posts we’ve featured to date. Is there something you’d like to see discussed here? Tweet your suggestions to @PrincetonUPress

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Paula S. Fass wrote on Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Get the Youth Vote as well as why she thinks that Young Americans need required national service.

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Amy Binder addresses the surprisingly inciting tactics of Republicans in the past in The Provocative Politics of the Republican Party.

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George C. Edwards III explicates the important traits and knowledge necessary to any candidate in What do We Really Want in a President?

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Thomas Knock lists major books about presidents and politics in his article, Classic Presidential Reads.

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Lynn Vavreck examines John Kasich’s campaign and the power of television ads in Can Kasich Accentuate the Positive?

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Wendy Schiller talks about how other elected positions will affect the winning candidate in her article, The Supreme Court and the battle for the U.S. Senate.

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Jason Stanley discusses how Clinton has accused Sanders of being A Single Issue Candidate and in another article speaks on Donald Trump and Mass Incarceration.

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Simon Reich looks at each of the major candidates and their experience on foreign policy in his article, Does it matter who wins the election when it comes to the Middle East?

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Jonathan Zimmerman contrasts the secrecy and unreliability that follow Hillary Clinton against the undeniable authenticity of Bernie Sanders in his article on Hillary Clinton and the Perils of Authenticity.

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Zoltan L. Hajnal discusses how despite creating controversy and outrage over his racist and sexist remarks, Trump has only gained popularity, in his article on how Trump’s strategy is nothing new for the GOP.

The Loneliness of the Black Republican

Leah Wright Rigueur discusses the disappointing suspension of Rand Paul’s campaign in Rand Paul’s failed appeal to black voters.

When Movements Anchor Parties

Daniel Schlozman questions why all of the Democratic party’s support has gone to Hillary Clinton in Why Bernie Sanders is getting movements’ cold shoulder.

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Jason Brennan insists that our notions about democracy are completely unreliable in his article, Our relationship to democracy is nonconsensual.

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Ellen Wu on the issue of a ‘model minority’ and Nikki Haley’s current position in that political stereotyping in her post, Nikki Haley and the American Dream.

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Nancy Woloch speaks about women’s healthcare and the laws currently being considered that may negatively affect women nationwide in The Explosive Potential of the Whole Women’s Health Case.

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Nicholas Bloom discusses poverty housing programs and how presidential candidates have recently been addressing these areas in The Perilous Politics of Housing Poor People.

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Chirstopher Kutz points out how loudly the silence of candidates’ speaks on drone strikes and taking responsibility for them in his article Drone warfare: The real moral debate.