As this is being prepared, the 5-4 Court--Roberts voting with the liberals--invalidated the Louisiana abortion restrictions. More on that and on that continuing pattern below.
Let's finish this series by recalling a few other decisions reflecting the same pattern. Perhaps these cases, like those we've previously discussed, evince a Chief Justice concerned primarily about the legitimacy of his Court, i.e., rebuffing criticisms that it is just another institution polarized along partisan lines. Perhaps it's Roberts holding his Court together by giving the benefit of the doubt to the Court's liberals--at least every once in a while in close cases where he could honestly support either side. Perhaps it's the Chief Justice upholding the integrity of the Court's authority by supporting precedents against which he had originally dissented (as he just now did again in the Louisiana abortion case). Or perhaps it's actually the Chief Justice changing his mind after some time for reconsideration.
Again, whatever the reason--and likely there are different reasons in different cases--the emerging pattern is clear. Roberts has given political liberals, both on and off the Court, some significant victories
(Of course this has not escaped the President's notice--and ire.)
Okay, enough with preliminaries. Let's get to the last few cases we'll look at in this series that illustrate the pattern that may well be the most salient characteristic of this otherwise quite politically conservative Court.
Church and State. Late last month, the Chief Justice joined his liberal colleagues in refusing to lift the COVID-crisis restrictions on church attendance that had been imposed by California's governor. Roberts' 4 conservative colleagues all dissented. Justice Kavanaugh, in an opinion joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, argued that the numerical limitations on gatherings and the requirement for social distancing unconstitutionally discriminated against religious exercise. This was so, according to Kavanaugh, because other similarly situated activities did not face such restrictions. [Alito's dissenting vote was simply noted.]
Although the Court's decision was merely an order, Roberts' authored an opinion explaining why the majority got it right. The standard for granting emergency relief is that the constitutional merits are already "indisputably clear." Roberts deemed it "quite improbable" that the religious objectors could show that. Two basic reasons. First, despite the dissenters' claim, "only dissimilar activities...in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods" are treated more leniently than churches. Second, the need for restrictions "during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement," which the Constitution "principally entrusts" to the "especially broad" latitude of the states' political officials. And such matters of public health and safety should usually "not be subject to second-guessing" by the federal judiciary.
In short, the Chief Justice disagreed with his conservative colleagues that the religious objectors had demonstrated that they were being treated disparately or too harshly. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 2020.
Three years earlier, in another church-state case, Roberts held the middle ground to which some of his conservative colleagues and some of his liberal colleagues objected--naturally for different reasons. Writing the opinion for the Court, the Chief Justice explained that the ineligibility of religious organizations from a state program that subsidized the safety improvement of school playgrounds violated free exercise--i.e., the disqualification discriminated on the basis of religion, despite the purely secular purpose of the program's assistance.
Although Justices Kennedy and Alito joined Roberts' opinion in full, Thomas and Gorsuch objected that the ruling was too limited--i.e., it should not have been limited to playground safety, nor to secular versus religious uses.
While Justice Kagan fully joined Roberts' opinion, Breyer wrote a separate concurence to emphasize that the program in question, as well as the Court's ruling, was limited to a public service--here "the health and safety of children." The remaining liberals, Justice Sotomayor joined by Ginsburg, dissented on the ground that directly funding a religious organization violated the constitution's non-establishment mandate.
Here, as we have seen elsewhere, the Chief Justice struck a balance. He crafted a ruling that was narrow enough to secure a majority, despite differences or even dissents from some of his more ideologically-driven colleagues--conservative or liberal. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, (2017).
Right to Choose/Abortion Rights. Four years ago, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court ruled that a Texas law, that limited which physicians and facilities could provide abortion servoces, imposed an unconstitutional "undue burden" on a woman's right to choose. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, along with his conservative colleagues, Justices Thomas and Alito. [Justice Scalia had recently passed away and his vacancy had not yet been filled.]
Since that decision, Justice Gorsuch was appointed to fill Scalia's seat, and Justice Kavanaugh was appointed to replace Justice Kennedy who had retired in the interim. With Kennedy now missing from the 5 Justices who comprised the majority in Whole Woman’s Health, the Court was confronted this term with another case term involving similar abortion retrictions. This time the state was Louisiana, but the restrictions, the prospective consequences, and the outcome were similar. Only physicians with privileges at a nearby hospital could perform abortions. The restrictions would drastically reduce the availability of abortion services. The restrictions were ostensibly to protect the health of women. The restrictions, according to expert analysis, actually had minimal health-related benefits. And the Court again found such restrictions to be an unconstitutional burden on a women's right to choose.
The big difference? This time the Chief Justice sided with the liberals to give them the bare 5-4 majority. In a separate concurrence, Roberts insisted that he still believed that Whole Woman’s Health was wrongly decided. But, in a 16 page opinion in which he reviewed the reasons for stare decisis and the Court's abortion rights precedents to date, the Chief Justice set forth a jurisprudence that has become a distinctive part of his opinion and voting patterns: "The legal doctrine of stare decisis requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike." [My emphasis.] Then, he concluded by applying that formula to his vote in this case: "The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law"--despite his disagreement then. June Medical Services L. L. C. v. Russo, 2020.
[Notably, Roberts signaled his thinking about this case when, in February 2019, he joined the liberals to form the same 5-4 majority to grant an order stopping the Louisiana law from taking effect while litigation was pending.]
One last one. This is one of my very favorites. I've written about it previously on New York Court Watcher.
Technological Searches. In the last few decades, the Court has seriously diluted constitutional search and seizure protections. It has done so, for example,
- by adding exceptions to the warrant requirement (e.g., warrantless searches and seizures incident to minor traffic infractions);
- by adding exceptions to the rule excluding unconstitutionally obtained evidence (e.g., the "good faith" exception);
- by diluting what is required for probable cause (i.e., the "totality of the circumstances" test);
- by diluting the 1967 landmark Katz decision which protected legitimate expectations of privacy (e.g., denying legitimacy to a host of privacy expectations);
- by (mis)using that landmark's formula in order to rule that searches are not "searches" for constitutional purposes (e.g., police searches from a hovering helicopter);
- by employing doctrines such as "third party" (i.e., if anyone else has access to information about you, then government needs no warrant or probable cause to access it);
- and "public access" (i.e., if members of the public can see you in a public place, then government can surveil you without a warrant or probable cause);
- and "tresspass" (i.e., equating search and seizure rights to property rights whereby a physical tresspass is necessary to constitute a violation);
- by limiting search and seizure protections to those specific items enumerated in the 4th Amendment.
Well, two years ago, Chief Justice Roberts joined the liberals and, in the 5-4 majority opinion he assigned to himself, he avoided or simply dispensed with some of those foregoing dilutions--to the considerable consternation of his more law and order minded colleagues. Roberts wrote that a warrant supported by probable cause is required for law enforcement to access cellphone location data about a suspect from a cellphone company. No, the fact that some entity, the company itself, already had access to the information (i.e., the third party doctrine) didn't allow the government to have warrantless access. No, the fact that the data did not belong to the individual, but to the company (i.e., the property rights/tresspass doctrine), didn't mean that the individual was without some entitlement to privacy from the government. No, the fact that the individual's movements and location in public might be observed by members of the public (i.e., public access doctrine), didn't mean that he had no legitimate expectation of privacy from government surveilance. Etc.
Yes, acknowledged Roberts, the Court's opinion six years earlier in U.S. v. Jones, authored by Justice Scalia, did assert that the warrantless monitoring of a suspect's movements and location was unconstitutional because the police had "tresspassed" on his property--i.e., by attaching a GPS device to his vehicle without his consent. But, the Chief Justice pointed out that a majority of the Justices in Jones had actually reaffairmed the Katz "legitimate expectation of privacy" doctrine. There was Justice Alito and the 3 liberals who joined his concurring opinion, stridently rejecting Scalia's tresspass analysis in favor of Katz; and Justice Sotomayor who authored a separate concurrence, joining Scalia but also reaffirming Katz.
As Roberts explained in declining to apply some of the previously adopted doctrines, "few could have imagined a society in which a phone goes wherever its owner goes, conveying to the wireless carrier not just dialed digits, but a detailed and comprehensive record of the person’s movements." He went further: "Apart from disconnecting the phone from the network, there is no way to avoid leaving behind a trail of location data. As a result, in no meaningful sense does the user voluntarily 'assume the risk' of turning over a comprehensive dossier of his physical movements."
The concerns expressed by the Chief Justice in his majority opinion sounded much more like those of the liberal Justices who had previously dissented while the Court was diluting search and seizure protections. And Roberts' conservative collegues in this case understood that and objected to his aligning with the liberals in refusing to apply those law and order doctrines. Carpenter v. U.S., 2018.
[For more on the Carpenter decision, see The Supreme's Cell Location Data Decision: Right, Revealing, and a Real Milestone, June 26, 2018.]
There are other cases--an increasing number of them at that--where Chief Justice Roberts has indeed established a distinct pattern of parting with his usual ideological allies on the Court and siding with the liberals to form a majority on some major, highly-charged issues. That point, I believe, has been well made, and continuing further is not only uneccessary but perhaps fatiguing. So we shall end here.
Of course, decisions handed down by the Court in the next few days, as the current term comes to a close, may well make all of the foregoing seem like wishful thinking based on a a few isolated exceptions. But the pattern is there, it is clear, and there no particular reason to think that it won't continue.