Thursday, June 25, 2020

It's Roberts' (somewhat less right-wing) Court (Part 2)

Source: AP/Dave Tulis/Larry Downing
In Part 1, we saw how Chief Justice Roberts joined decisions that saved so-called Obamacare and that protected immigrants. In those cases, he often authored the majority opinion himself, allying himself with his liberal colleagues to render decisions that triggered unconcealed outrage on the part of all or most of his conservative colleagues in dissent.

We witnessed exactly that last week in the DACA case (Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, 2020) which was discussed in the previous post. Let's now turn to last week's other momentous decision, as well as an earlier related one that is, perhaps, even more revealing about the role and direction of Roberts as the primus inter pares.

LGBTQ Rights.  In a long-awaited decision--it took over 8 months from oral arguments on October 8, 2019--the Court ruled last week that the prohibition against "sex" discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender employees. The Chief Justice joined his 4 liberal colleagues, as well as one of the Trump-appointed conservative Justices, Neil Gorsuch, to whom he assigned the writing of the majority opinion.
Over the dissents of the 3 remaining Republican appointees [Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh], the Roberts-assigned/Gorsuch-penned majority opinion agreed with the fired employees that discrimination on the basis of "sex" necessarily covered discrimination against gays and transgenders. The crux of the argument [distilled from what I found to be a mostly insufferable 33 pages] was that the term "sex," as a matter of sheer linguistics and logic, does apply to gays and transgenders, even if that application was not within the underlying legislative intent of the law.
The 3 remaining conservatives wrote 134 combined pages of dissent. Justice Samuel Alito's seething 107-page opinion, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as the separate dissent of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, evinced frustration triggered not only by the Court's decision, but no doubt also by the loss of another Roberts vote to the liberals--this time, together with Gorsuch's vote as well. Bostock v. Clayton County, 2020.

[I feel compelled to add that, regardless of my unqualified agreement with the Court's result, I find much of the majority opinion unnecessary, unpersuasive, and perilous. The same decision could have been reached by simply sticking to the inexorable logic of what sex discrimination necessarily includes. (E.g., if a woman prefers men, that's ok. But if a man does, that's not? The only difference is the different sex of the person who prefers men.)
Beyond that, a far better majority opinion, in my view, would have embraced the overarching principle in prohibiting sex discrimination. Sex and sex-related characteristics are utterly irrelevant for most purposes. For like reason, most disparate treatment on those bases is born of bigotry or some other form of ignorance, rather than some justified reason--which is precisely what discrimination means.
On the other hand, Gorsuch’s "it’s clear from the original understanding of the plain terms of the statute" argument (I’m paraphrasing) can be expected to be used in the future to support reactionary results. The 6 votes his opinion received will surely be used as a strong endorsement of his insistent originalism—i.e., the “ordinary public meaning” of the terms of the law “at the time of the enactment" (his language)—about which he waxed and waned ad nauseam. This will be thrown back at the liberals--all of whom joined his opinion without a whisper of discomfort--when he and the other conservatives (including those in dissent in this case) use it in future cases to undercut past progress and block attempts to move the law forward.
I wish at least one of the liberal Justices had authored a separate concurrence making clear that they weren’t endorsing Gorsuch’s originalist interpretive approach. The need to do so should have been especially clear in light of Alito's dissenting opinion. Regarding what "sex discrimination" was understood to mean "at the time of enactment," Alito's dissent had the much stronger argument. Just consider this: would the law's prohibition of "sex discrimination" have been passed--"at the time of enactment" in 1964--if legislators were told that those terms protected gays and transgenders as well as women? Now ask the same question about progressive interpretations of countless other statutory and constitutional provisions. The liberals should at least have expressed their reservations about the originalism touted by Gorsuch.
Others have raised similar concerns. See e.g., Neil Gorsuch Lays Landmines Throughout LGBTQ Discrimination Opinion]

An earlier decision of the Court, three years before Bostock, was arguably more revealing about Roberts' view of his role as Chief Justice (as well as of Gorsuch's view of LGBTQ rights). Roberts' position in that earlier case took many by surprise because he had dissented two years before in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).  In Obergefell, Roberts, together with the other Republican appointees-- except for Justice Anthony Kennedy--had rejected the notion that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry. But in 2017, Roberts broke with the Court's conservatives and, aligning with the Obergefell majority, helped reaffirm that landmark decision.
In a per curiam opinion, with the Chief Justice in the 6-3 majority, the Court invalidated an Arkansas rule that treated same-sex and opposite-sex spouses differently on their children's birth certificates. While the male spouses of biological mothers were entitled to be identified, female spouses were not. Repeatedly quoting from the Obergefell majority opinion--against which the Chief Justice had originally dissented--Roberts, together with his 4 liberal colleagues and Justice Kennedy, summarily granted review, reversed the state's supreme court, and struck the Arkansas practice on the ground that "the Constitution entitles same-sex couples to civil marriage 'on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.'”
Justice Gorsuch, this time writing a dissent, which was joined by Thomas and Alito, argued that, although the Obergefell decision held that "a State must recognize same-sex marriages," it said "nothing" about "a birth registration regime based on biology." In response, the Roberts-joined per curiam majority noted that opposite-sex spouses identified on Arkansas birth certificates need not be biological parents. Applying another line excerpted from Obergefell, the Chief Justice and his more liberal colleagues concluded that Arkansas has "denied married same-sex couples access to the 'constellation of benefits that the Stat[e] ha[s] linked to marriage.'” Pavan v. Smith, 2017.

Roberts had thus apparently decided that his role as Chief Justice included adhering to the Court's recent progressive landmark and opposing attempts to undermine it--regardless of his original position on the matter.

Death Penalty/Intellectual Disability. A similar pattern is evident in positions taken by Roberts in some recent death penalty cases. He had dissented in Moore v. Texas when that case came before the Court in 2017. The Court's majority ruled that the state court's judgment that the death row inmate was mentally competent to be executed "had no grounding in prevailing medical practice." Accordingly, the case was remanded for a determination "informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework." Roberts dissented on the ground that the "independent basis for [the state court's] judgment" was adequate.
When the case returned to the Supreme Court two years later, the majority once again disapproved the state court's determination that the inmate was competent. This time, however, the Chief Justice broke with the conservative dissenters [Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch] and joined the majority [which notably included Justice Kavanaugh]. Despite Roberts' own previous dissent, he acknowledged that the Texas determination "did not pass muster under this Court’s analysis last time" and, because "[i]t still doesn’t," he joined the majority's opinion to again reverse the state court's judgment. Moore v. Texas, 2019.

The Chief Justice joined his liberal colleagues in several other related death penalty cases in 2019. A few weeks prior to the Court's decision in Moore, Roberts signaled his break with his conservative colleagues in White v. Kentucky. In that early 2019 decision, he joined the majority's order [over the dissent of Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch] to grant review and simultaneously, without argument, reverse a judgment of the state's supreme court--on the basis of the Court's earlier 2017 Moore decision.
Similarly, in Madison v. Alabama, also decided in early 2019, Roberts again broke with his conservative colleagues [Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch]. In that case, he sided with the liberals to vacate the judgment of the state court that had approved an execution. He joined Justice Elena Kagan's majority opinion that the Constitution prohibits executing a person who is unable to understand why he's being punished, regardless of the particular intellectual disability he suffers, dementia or psychosis.
One more. In Murphy v. Collier, decided several weeks thereafter, the Chief Justice again sided with his liberal colleagues to halt to another execution. Over Justice Alito's dissenting opinion, which was joined by Thomas and Gorsuch, the Roberts-joined majority summarily enjoined Texas from carrying out the execution, at least until it first granted the inmate's request to be accompanied into the chamber by a Buddhist chaplain.

To be sure, Chief Justice Roberts' positions in the cases thus far discussed do not mean that he has transformed into an ideological liberal. But they do demonstrate a pattern of willingness to break with his more natural political allies on the Court and, moreover, to do so on some of the most highly charged issues of the day.
We'll look at a few more of these in the next and final post in this series.