Does The Supreme Court Rely On One Man’s Decision?

On April 25, 2012, 1:06 PM by

The fate of President Obama’s crowning achievement of his first term — the passing of the healthcare reform law — seemingly rests on the shoulders of one Supreme Court Justice. After repeated 5-4 rulings decided recent cases, what initially seemed to be mere suspicions of a court neatly divided along party lines has become something of a known fact. Divided between four staunchly conservative and four staunchly liberal justices, Anthony Kennedy has become the one and only swing vote on the Supreme Court.

Dialogue-shifting decisions that have painted a picture of a bench divided along liberal/conservative lines include 2010’s Berghuis v. Thompkins ruling, in which the court essentially ruled to loosen an arrested citizen’s Miranda rights. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where they determined that political spending is protected under the First Amendment. This year brought the decision on Florence v. Burlington County, in which the court ruled that police may strip search anyone arrested for any offense, even if there is no reason to suspect contraband.

In each of the above Supreme Court decisions, Justice Anthony Kennedy was the deciding factor. Siding with the conservative wing of the court (Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts), Kennedy was able to swing cases with significant impact on how the Constitution is interpreted and enforced.

Kennedy Obamacare Protest

Meanwhile, the liberal wing of the court (Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) has failed more often than not in convincing Kennedy to join their side while court watchers have accepted that Kennedy is once again going to be the 5th vote on Obamacare. This prompted a show of preventative action by President Oama when he recently claimed the potential overturning of his healthcare law would be nothing more than judicial activism. Decrying such a ruling as “unprecedented,” President Obama said he was confident that the court would not overturn what is an act that passed through the democratic process of Congress.

While the Supreme Court bears the bold declaration above its main doors of “Equal Justice Under the Law,” it appears to be bogging itself down in a type of justice that is far from blind. In fact, the very idea of having one man consistently deciding on cases seems to be driven by a brand of justice that has its eyes wide open, inspired by and desiring to imitate the petty arguments that have become such a stumbling block to Congressional productivity. And as a Gallup Poll from February of this year painfully pointed out, the current Congress is sitting on a comfortable 10% American approval rating.

Kennedy Obamacare Supreme Court

Another poll showed that after the three-day hearing on Obamacare, the Supreme Court’s public approval rating jumped. This is a good thing, right? Doesn’t this mean that people are beginning to believe that the decision on Obamacare might usher in a new age of a Supreme Court that is once again guided by a studious, intellectual grasp of the law? Unlikely. Maybe it is just cynicism prevailing, but perhaps it’s not that the public has become more optimistic about the court. Maybe it’s just that the Court has morphed itself into exactly what people crave in their political news feeds: partisan, polarizing, and disagreeable politics.

When the Court rules on Obamacare, the Justices’ statements will be nothing short of captivating to court watchers. If the law is upheld, the President will see it as a triumphant political victory and he will ride it well into the peak of election season. Ifit is overturned, conservative lawmakers and opposing judges will claim it as their prize. They will assert that the law failed the vital test of judicial review and the President was merely name-calling when he accused the court of activism. Either way, the court’s decision will be where the buck stops, at least for a while in terms of political rhetoric.

However, how the Justices back up their decision is almost as important as the court’s decision itself. If, in the majority opinion, we find yet another vaguely worded 5-4 call that reeks of political side-taking, both sides lose. Because if that’s the case, the only branch of government supposed to be able to lift itself above Washington’s political roughhousing will be rolling up its sleeves and trading political haymakers right there with them.


  • Farnk20

    I hate to break it to you Mr. Siegel, but the Supreme Court isn’t nearly as politicized as they say. The facts simply don’t back you up.
    By the looks of the graph, only about 16% of cases decided this term were a 5-4 decision.
    For comparison, 58% were unanimously decided 9-0.
    I suggest fact-checking before your next article.

    • Bsiegel01

      Thanks for your comment; that certainly is important to keep in mind that in the grand scheme of things it is a small percentage of votes that end up as ‘swing votes.’ However, why I believe Kennedy is so influential is because when there is a swing vote, he almost always decides the issue, and they are usually of considerable importance.
      When there is a Kennedy swing vote, it’s for a big decision: he decided the ruling on the courts’ decision for abortion, the death penalty, discrimination, campaign finances that led to super-pacs, and criminal procedure cases.
      He was the 5th vote in 20 of 25 cases in the term ending in 2009, 12 of the 17 cases in 2012, and 14 of the 16 cases in the term that ended last year.

      I found it interesting that the court, in recent years, was so usually divided on philosophical lines with Kennedy deciding the issue. Again, thanks so much for taking time to read my article and leave a comment.

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Benjamin will be completing his undergraduate career at Bellarmine University this May, graduating with a B.A. in Political Science and minor in Economics. He has worked as a law clerk for a Louisville Law Firm and volunteers at the local Legal Aid Society and Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services.





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