Although the Supreme Court has been deciding cases at a glacial pace this term — and that with an almost comically small docket of only 59 merits cases — the justices have found other ways to keep busy. They have been spinning their ethical lapses (Justice Clarence Thomas), blowing off congressional oversight (Chief Justice John Roberts), giving interviews whining about public criticism (Justice Samuel Alito) and presenting awards to one another (Justice Elena Kagan to Mr. Roberts).
In the cases it has decided, the Supreme Court has gutted an important provision of the Clean Water Act and made it easier for private litigants to mount constitutional challenges to an administrative agency’s structure or existence. Opinions still to come threaten to strike down everything from affirmative action in education to student debt relief to the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Court observers might be tempted to describe all this as a relatively recent development, a function of the court’s 6-to-3 Republican-appointed supermajority. The University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman has called this the “YOLO court” (for “you only live once”), because of the majority’s apparent sense of liberation in pursuing long-held conservative goals. Mark Lemley of Stanford placed the beginning of the “imperial Supreme Court” in 2020.
Mr. Lemley is right to decry the self-aggrandizing nature of the court. But his dating is somewhat off. Judicial self-aggrandizement has been in the works for a lot longer: It has been a hallmark of the John Roberts years.
Over roughly the past 15 years, the justices have seized for themselves more and more of the national governing agenda, overriding other decision makers with startling frequency. And they have done so in language that drips with contempt for other governing institutions and in a way that elevates the judicial role above all others.
The result has been a judicial power grab. [Continue reading…]