Supreme Court Under Roberts Is Most Conservative in Decades
WASHINGTON — When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his colleagues on the Supreme Court left for their summer break at the end of June, they marked a milestone: the Roberts court had just completed its fifth term.
In those five years, the court not only moved to the right but also became the most conservative one in living memory, based on an analysis of four sets of political science data.
And for all the public debate about the confirmation of Elena Kagan or the addition last year of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, there is no reason to think they will make a difference in the court’s ideological balance. Indeed, the data show that only one recent replacement altered its direction, that of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006, pulling the court to the right.
There is no similar switch on the horizon. That means that Chief Justice Roberts, 55, is settling in for what is likely to be a very long tenure at the head of a court that seems to be entering a period of stability.
If the Roberts court continues on the course suggested by its first five years, it is likely to allow a greater role for religion in public life, to permit more participation by unions and corporations in elections and to elaborate further on the scope of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Abortion rights are likely to be curtailed, as are affirmative action and protections for people accused of crimes.
The recent shift to the right is modest. And the court’s decisions have hardly been uniformly conservative. The justices have, for instance, limited the use of the death penalty and rejected broad claims of executive power in the government’s efforts to combat terrorism.
But scholars who look at overall trends rather than individual decisions say that widely accepted political science data tell an unmistakable story about a notably conservative court.
Almost all judicial decisions, they say, can be assigned an ideological value. Those favoring, say, prosecutors and employers are said to be conservative, while those favoring criminal defendants and people claiming discrimination are said to be liberal.
Analyses of databases coding Supreme Court decisions and justices’ votes along these lines, one going back to 1953 and another to 1937, show that the Roberts court has staked out territory to the right of the two conservative courts that immediately preceded it by four distinct measures:
In its first five years, the Roberts court issued conservative decisions 58 percent of the time. And in the term ending a year ago, the rate rose to 65 percent, the highest number in any year since at least 1953.
The courts led by Chief Justices Warren E. Burger, from 1969 to 1986, and William H. Rehnquist, from 1986 to 2005, issued conservative decisions at an almost indistinguishable rate — 55 percent of the time.
That was a sharp break from the court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, from 1953 to 1969, in what liberals consider the Supreme Court’s golden age and conservatives portray as the height of inappropriate judicial meddling. That court issued conservative decisions 34 percent of the time.
Four of the six most conservative justices of the 44 who have sat on the court since 1937 are serving now: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Antonin Scalia and, most conservative of all, Clarence Thomas. (The other two were Chief Justices Burger and Rehnquist.) Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the swing justice on the current court, is in the top 10.
The Roberts court is finding laws unconstitutional and reversing precedent — two measures of activism — no more often than earlier courts. But the ideological direction of the court’s activism has undergone a marked change toward conservative results.
Until she retired in 2006, Justice O’Connor was very often the court’s swing vote, and in her later years she had drifted to the center-left. These days, Justice Kennedy has assumed that crucial role at the court’s center, moving the court to the right.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in June, had his own way of tallying the court’s direction. In an interview in his chambers in April, he said that every one of the 11 justices who had joined the court since 1975, including himself, was more conservative than his or her predecessor, with the possible exceptions of Justices Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The numbers largely bear this out, though Chief Justice Roberts is slightly more liberal than his predecessor, Chief Justice Rehnquist, at least if all of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s 33 years on the court, 14 of them as an associate justice, are considered. (In later years, some of his views softened.)
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