Not Exactly The People's Court

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MARCH 23, 2008

Not Exactly The People's Court

Our TNR colleague Jeff Rosen had a piece in last weekend's New York Times magazine that I strongly encourage you to read. Jeff argues that the Supreme Court is increasingly sympathetic to the interests of economic elites--and that includes appointees from both parties, not just Republicans--even though popular opinion is trending in a more populist direction. These few grafs nicely lay out the key developments:

After the election of Bill Clinton, for example, the chamber endorsed Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in addition to her pioneering achievements as the head of the women’s rights project at the A.C.L.U. had specialized, as a law professor, in the procedural rules in complex civil cases and was comfortable with the finer points of business litigation. The chamber was especially enthusiastic about Clinton’s second nominee, Stephen Breyer, who made his name building a bipartisan consensus for airline deregulation as a special counsel on the judiciary committee; and who, as a Harvard Law professor, advocated an influential and moderate view on antitrust enforcement.

Clinton’s nominations of Ginsburg and Breyer may have been welcomed by the chamber, but with the election of George W. Bush, the chamber faced a dilemma. Ever since the Reagan administration, there had been a divide on the right wing of the court between pragmatic free-market conservatives, who tended to favor business interests, and ideological states-rights conservatives. In some business cases, these two strands of conservatism diverged, leading the most staunch states-rights conservatives on the court, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, to rule against business interests. Scalia and Thomas were reluctant to second-guess large punitive-damage verdicts by state juries, for example, or to hold that federally regulated cigarette manufacturers could not be sued in state court. As a result, under Conrad’s leadership, the chamber began a vigorous campaign to urge the Bush administration to appoint pro-business conservatives.

When it came time to replace Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the candidate most enthusiastically supported by states-rights conservatives, Judge Michael Luttig, had a record on the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that some corporate interests feared might make him unpredictable in business cases. (“One of my constant refrains is that being conservative doesn’t necessarily mean being pro-business,” Conrad told me.) The chamber and other business groups enthusiastically supported John Roberts, who had been hired by the chamber to write briefs in two Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2002. At the time of Roberts’s nomination, Thomas Goldstein, a prominent Supreme Court litigator, described him as “the go-to lawyer for the business community,” adding “of all the candidates, he is the one they knew best.” When Roberts was nominated, business groups lobbied senators as part of the campaign for his confirmation.

The business community was also enthusiastic about Samuel Alito, whose 15-year record as an appellate judge showed a consistent skepticism of claims against large corporations. Ted Frank of the American Enterprise Institute predicted at the time of the nomination that if Alito replaced O’Connor, he and Roberts would bring about a rise in business cases before the Supreme Court. Frank’s prediction was soon vindicated.

“There wasn’t a great deal of interest in classic business cases in the last few years of the Rehnquist Court,” Carter Phillips, a partner at Sidley Austin and a leading Supreme Court business advocate, told me. In 2004, Judge Richard Posner, a founder of the law-and-economics movement, argued that the Rehnquist Court’s emphasis on headline-grabbing constitutional cases had politicized it, and called on the court to hear more business cases. The Roberts court has unambiguously answered the call. As Phillips told me, Roberts “is more interested in those issues and understands them better than his predecessor did.” ...

Exactly how successful has the Chamber of Commerce been at the Supreme Court? Although the court is currently accepting less than 2 percent of the 10,000 petitions it receives each year, the Chamber of Commerce’s petitions between 2004 and 2007 were granted at a rate of 26 percent, according to Scotusblog. And persuading the Supreme Court to hear a case is more than half the battle: Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Georgetown who also represents environmental clients before the court, recently ran the numbers and found that the court reverses the lower court in 65 percent of the cases it agrees to hear; and when the petitioner is represented by the elite Supreme Court advocates routinely hired by the chamber, the success rate rises to 75 percent.

I've been toying with writing a piece about how, broadly speaking, the political conflicts that really matter these days aren't between people on either side of controversial social issues or even national security issues, in which public policy going forward isn't likely to deviate heavily from public opinion, but between elites on either end of the ideological spectrum and the masses, whose views on economic policy and regulation really diverge. (Okay, if McCain's elected, I could see foreign policy getting out of step with public opinion, but even then not by leaps and bounds. A president McCain's foreign policy options would be relatively limited, whereas there are very few checks on certain types of economic policymaking. Democrats now receive so much money from Wall Street and corporate America that they're unlikely to stop a lot of what the McCain White House cooks up.)

I touched on some of these themes in a recent book review, but there's much more to be said given the size of the problem, which we're discovering with the current market meltdown. Thankfully, Jeff's provided the definitive take on this tension in the legal world.

Update: Rob Walker has some smart thoughts on Jeff's piece here.

--Noam Scheiber

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