Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution

Overview

With the Supreme Court more influential than ever, this eye-opening book tells the story of how the Roberts Court is shaking the foundation of our nation’s laws

From Citizens United to its momentous rulings regarding Obamacare and gay marriage, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has profoundly affected American life. Yet the court remains a mysterious institution, and the motivations of the nine men and women who serve for life are often obscure. Now, in ...

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Overview

With the Supreme Court more influential than ever, this eye-opening book tells the story of how the Roberts Court is shaking the foundation of our nation’s laws

From Citizens United to its momentous rulings regarding Obamacare and gay marriage, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has profoundly affected American life. Yet the court remains a mysterious institution, and the motivations of the nine men and women who serve for life are often obscure. Now, in Uncertain Justice, Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz show the surprising extent to which the Roberts Court is revising the meaning of our Constitution.

This essential book arrives at a make-or-break moment for the nation and the court. Political gridlock, cultural change, and technological progress mean that the court’s decisions on key topics—including free speech, privacy, voting rights, and presidential power—could be uniquely durable. Acutely aware of their opportunity, the justices are rewriting critical aspects of constitutional law and redrawing the ground rules of American government. Tribe—one of the country’s leading constitutional lawyers—and Matz dig deeply into the court’s recent rulings, stepping beyond tired debates over judicial “activism” to draw out hidden meanings and silent battles. The undercurrents they reveal suggest a strikingly different vision for the future of our country, one that is sure to be hotly debated.

Filled with original insights and compelling human stories, Uncertain Justice illuminates the most colorful story of all—how the Supreme Court and the Constitution frame the way we live.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
07/07/2014
Harvard Law professor and iconic constitutional law figure Tribe and co-author Matz offer a timely analysis of the landscape-altering opinions of the Roberts Supreme Court. Roberts is depicted as part of a court divided by the obvious, competing conservative and liberal philosophies, but also a court whose Justices harbor distinct approaches to the Constitution. Tribe and Matz focus on the Court's opinions in cases that decided controversial issues including campaign finance, the Affordable Care Act, Affirmative Action, and gay rights. The legal principles argued in these landmark cases and the ramifications of the decisions, are explained in clear and understandable language. The exploration of the equally important analysis of how the personalities and personal experiences of the Justices resonate in their opinions reflects an intimate knowledge of the Court's workings. The inclusion of the heated debates between Justices is engaging and acts to humanize the Justices, although it does not necessarily make them likable. Tribe and Matz don't shy away from making critical comments on the merits of various opinions. Nevertheless, the authors are surprisingly philosophical about the Court's direction and end by claiming that the Court's decisions are part of "a long arc that bends toward justice." (June)
From the Publisher
"Well-written and highly readable…. The strength of the book is its painstaking explanation of all sides of the critical cases, giving full voice and weight to conservative and liberal views alike…. The common-sense tone that prevails in most of the book is a tribute to the mastery of the Supreme Court by Tribe, a keen observer of the justices and of constitutional law for more than four decades."—The Washington Post

"Full of bright and unconventional wisdom… Rejecting tiresome conventions of court reporting — liberals vs. conservatives, restraint vs. activism — the authors bring fresh insight to the court's work."—The Los Angeles Times

"Tribe is a particularly effective messenger… [and] is among the nation’s most celebrated legal scholars…. By giving the Justices their due, this book reminds us what it really means to respect the Constitution and its mission." —The Los Angeles Review of Books

"A well-researched, unsettling investigation of recent trends in the nation’s highest court… A near-forensic dissection of the court's work under Roberts ... Many of their conclusions will be eye-openers."—Kirkus Reviews

"[An] insightful perspective on the Supreme Court… [and a] nuanced look at how the court under Chief Justice Roberts has arrived at momentous decisions from Citizens United to support for Obamacare."—Booklist

"Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz have produced a brilliantly layered account of the Roberts Court. Filled with memorable stories and striking references to literature, baseball and popular culture, this book is a joy to read from start to finish—an irresistible narrative that will delight the general public as well as journalists and scholars."—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals and The Bully Pulpit

"Laurence Tribe, the foremost constitutional scholar and advocate of his generation, and Joshua Matz have written a brilliantly insightful and engaging account of the Roberts Court. Relentlessly fair-minded in its judgments about the justices and their work, Uncertain Justice is an indispensable guide to the Court’s recent history and, more importantly, to its future."—Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine and Senior Legal Analyst, CNN

"Uncertain Justice is a fascinating, penetrating, and highly readable analysis of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Anyone who aspires to understand how and in what ways the Court is influencing our lives and our laws will want to read this superb and evenhanded book."—Theodore B. Olson, U.S. Solicitor General for President George W. Bush

"No one knows the Supreme Court like Laurence Tribe, and no one brings its decisions to life like Tribe and Joshua Matz. Uncertain Justice is spellbinding—whether you care about gay marriage, health care, NSA surveillance, or gun control, this magnificent book will widen and deepen your understanding of our constitutional landscape."—Kathleen M. Sullivan, Dean, Stanford Law School (1999-2004)

"Uncertain Justice provides a uniquely valuable perspective on the often confusing swirl around the most divisive legal, social, and political issues of our time. Once I started reading it, I just could not stop."—Ron Klain, Chief of Staff, Vice Presidents Biden (2009-11) and Gore (1995-99)

"Uncertain Justice is must reading for anyone interested in the current unannounced agenda of the Supreme Court. Lucidly written and impeccably reasoned, this essential book documents the ways in which the Roberts Court has engaged in a wholesale revision of the Constitution."—Scott Turow, author of One L, Presumed Innocent, and Identical

"We need this book. It is a brilliant discussion of the murky, quirky, troubling, and uncertain Roberts Court. Written in simple, elegant prose for the general public, Uncertain Justice is the best explanation we have of how this Court reaches its most important decisions."—John Jay Osborn Jr., author of The Paper Chase

"Uncertain Justice offers a page-turning and accessible analysis of the Roberts Court and its individual justices. It illuminates the often sharp disagreements and occasionally surprising agreements that mark the Court’s performance. For those seeking a thoughtful, balanced, and fair-minded review of the Roberts Court, this is the book to read."—Geoffrey Stone, Dean, University of Chicago Law School (1987-94)

"Put simply, Uncertain Justice is a great book. Timely and important, it tells it like it is and captures the essence of the Court’s changing role in American life. It is an amazing piece of work."—Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-07
With Chief Justice John Roberts' leadership of the Supreme Court approaching its 10th anniversary, Tribe (Constitutional Law/Harvard Univ., 2008, etc.) and Matz, who clerks for a federal judge, provide a perspective on the changes reflected in the court's decision-making patterns.The co-authors cooperate in a near-forensic dissection of the court's work under Roberts, comparing the arguments of each justice on a case-by-case basis. Many of their conclusions will be eye-openers for general readers. Contrary perhaps to expectation, this is not merely an account of a consistent five-member conservative majority against a liberal minority. Conservatives—e.g., Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito—can differ from each other as much as they do from liberals like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Tribe and Matz fully address legal, philosophical and political motivations, and they document the general direction taking shape as one that tends to reverse law in many areas established since the New Deal. The authors systematically examine how the conflicting opinions on the court are coming together to reformulate the law's understanding of the Constitution in practice. The justices have focused much attention on cases that involve technical rules of procedure. In these cases, the court has favored big business and limited the rights of individuals to seek remedies through the courts for perceived wrongs. They have also used procedural cases to confer "near-total immunity on prosecutors and police," even undercutting aspects of Miranda rights. Certain decisions on integration, voter rights and affirmative action have raised questions about plaintiffs' future abilities to pursue any rights case in the courts. The court's decisions have also been geared toward establishing a new balance between federal and state governments and redefining congressional responsibility regarding the economy.A well-researched, unsettling investigation of recent trends in the nation's highest court.
Library Journal
07/01/2014
Tribe (constitutional law, Harvard Univ.) and Matz's (contributor, SCOTUSblog) book about the Roberts Court (the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts) and its view of the U.S. Constitution is thorough and remarkably current. The authors cover the major legal issues confronted by the court in long, detailed chapters that delve into the legal decision making behind each case. In addition to famous decisions such as the campaign finance case Citizens United, the authors explore related opinions that are less well known. This detail is especially helpful in understanding complex issues such as gun control, free speech, and privacy. The authors also look at the current justices, their personalities and backgrounds, and the way these factors have affected court rulings. Their exploration of the justices' experience and ideology leads to an extensive discussion of the impact of the Roberts Court on the Constitution and on American society. VERDICT Casual readers might find the legal discussion too involved, but students of law and political science will want to read it. [See Prepub Alert, 12/16/13.]—Becky Kennedy, Atlanta-Fulton P.L.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805099096
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,435
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Laurence Tribe has taught constitutional law at Harvard for four decades and written widely about the law—including the most frequently cited treatise on the U.S. Constitution. He has argued dozens of cases at the Supreme Court, including the first argument in Bush v. Gore. Joshua Matz, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a frequent contributor to SCOTUSblog, is a clerk for a federal judge in Los Angeles. Together, Tribe and Matz taught an acclaimed course at Harvard about the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Tribe lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Matz lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: Uncertain Justice

H. L. Mencken reputedly said, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”1

Understanding the Supreme Court undoubtedly qualifies as a “complex problem.”2 The nine justices currently issue more than seventy opinions every year, some of them thunderbolts that rock American life and others rightly destined for obscurity. With a hand in nearly every major issue of our time, from privacy and affirmative action to gun rights and health care, the Court is inescapable. Yet it is also mysterious and secretive, committed to rituals and reasoning that even experts struggle to understand. Its opinions are poked and prodded, examined under a microscope and held up to the light. The public hangs on to rumors of backroom drama, while scholars read tea leaves and prophesy the future. Clear trends predominate in certain areas of law, but efforts to develop a unified field theory of the Court—to explain its work as the result of a particular clash of politics, personalities, or principles—inevitably fall short. Even in this age of statistical models that seek to wring hidden meaning out of human behavior, the nine men and women who make up the Court intrigue and surprise us.

Consider a handful of the Court’s rulings since 2005, when John G. Roberts Jr. was appointed Chief Justice of the United States.3 In 2008, faced with a challenge by detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, the Roberts Court struck down an Act of Congress regulating national security in wartime.4 That same year, a narrow majority invoked the Constitution’s “original meaning” to hold that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.5 In 2010, the Court issued Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, triggering heated debate over corporate money in American politics.6 Then, in 2012, the Court upheld Barack Obama’s signature achievement—the Affordable Care Act.7 Since 2012, this Court has also blocked state efforts to regulate immigration,8 limited warrantless GPS surveillance,9 invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act,10 and held that part of the Defense of Marriage Act violates the rights of same-sex couples.11 Trying to comprehend the legal precedents, constitutional philosophies, and judicial personalities that shape these wildly divergent decisions can seem overwhelming.

Of course, an effort to understand the Roberts Court—much like an effort to understand the Court at any point in history—must reckon with more than just its results. The Court issues opinions in which the justices grapple with fundamental principles, argue over what the Constitution means and what role they should play in giving it life, and offer signals of where they are heading. These opinions open a window into the justices’ hearts and minds, giving us a glimpse of how they view the world. In many cases, the justices’ decisions, as well as their concurrences and dissents, also exert a magnetic pull on American life, both in their practical effects and through their bold interventions in our discourse. When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned that “a state of war is not a blank check for the President,”12 and when Roberts condemned the “sordid business” of “divvying us up by race,”13 they spoke to the public about constitutional values in ways that can’t simply be reduced to how they voted in those cases.

Judicial opinions, though, can defy easy comprehension. Far too often, their meaning is misunderstood. It doesn’t help that in controversial cases, the Court frequently erupts in a confusing cacophony of competing writings. Nor do its opinions always offer a comprehensive and transparent view of the Court; sometimes they are downright misleading.

The complex problem, then, is that the Supreme Court presents many kinds of uncertainty: What is really going on within the Court? What moves the justices to take the actions they do? How will they resolve the issues that reach them in the future? What roles do they see for themselves? Are they achieving what the Constitution requires or justice demands?

To be sure, this uncertainty has its limits. The Court is not a legal randomizer, emitting new constitutional rules without rhyme or reason. In less than a decade, for instance, the Roberts Court has wrought remarkable and directed changes in many areas of the law, forever transforming how the Constitution is understood. Yet the shifting boundaries of what we can know about the Court, the futures that seem likely and the precedents not long for this world, tell a captivating story in their own right. As Carl von Clausewitz observed, “Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.”14

In some important domains of constitutional law, a majority of the Roberts Court stands on the brink of revolution yet seems profoundly uncertain about whether and how to proceed. In other domains, it has already initiated major changes whose long-term effects are clouded in mystery. Some of these developments reflect a desire by the justices to remake our constitutional understanding, while others have been forced by dramatic cultural, technological, and political upheaval. Although uncertainty is not unique to the Roberts Court—it is always part of life at the Marble Palace—it affords an especially helpful entry point to this Court.

Many of the most important stories of the Roberts Court consist not of definitive rulings but of the portents and fault lines that lurk in opinions and hint at what lies ahead. In this book, we show how conventional wisdom on these matters is often misleading, and we draw out the latent meaning of many of this Court’s most important opinions to identify the uncertainties facing the nation and its justices.

To that end, we do not adopt a standard convention in books about the Court: the “deep explanation.” We do not point to a strong left/right split, a partisan realignment, or a dispute over legal method and then argue that the life of the Court really boils down to that story. We do not claim that the Roberts Court is ultimately about a fight between “activism” and “judicial restraint,” both of which are largely useless terms (all justices are “activists” in certain areas of constitutional law). We do not pick one or two justices and insist that their agendas or struggles fundamentally define the Court. Nor do we distill the Court down to “liberals” and “conservatives,” explaining cases as the result of ideological blocs and agonizing over one or more inscrutable “swing voters.”

There is, of course, much to be said for these approaches to the Court. Executed well, each can reveal important patterns, draw out the underappreciated influence of a particular justice or idea, and identify overall coherence or contradiction in the Court’s undertakings. Yet writing about the Court is not like examining the physical universe. Whereas scientists can at least strive for perfection in their models, only a madman or a fool would ever claim to have fully explained the Court.15 At times, this realization can inspire an intense frustration: scholars of the Court inevitably feel as if they are trying to nail jelly to the wall, to borrow an apt phrase from Teddy Roosevelt.16 In the end, though, accepting this limitation is liberating. It points the way toward a more ecumenical mind-set that can shed valuable light on the Court by approaching it from many angles at once.

Indeed, there are particularly good reasons to look skeptically on all of the leading deep explanations. They often overstate the determinate role of politics, principles, or personality and thereby squeeze out crucial elements of uncertainty and contingency. They certainly don’t capture how the justices actually think about their work or their positions on a nine-member court. Justice Elena Kagan tends to lean left and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. tends to lean right, but neither of them would ever approach a case by saying, “I’m a [liberal/conservative], so what does that mean for my vote here?” Nor do any of the justices reflexively think in, say, activist or nonactivist terms when considering how to work through constitutional issues.

To the contrary, in deciding how to vote and what to say, the justices are moved by a dizzying array of considerations, only some of them apparent to the public.17 First and foremost, the justices must account for what the Constitution requires. This may seem straightforward enough. But as Justice David Souter remarked after he resigned from the Court, “The Constitution is a pantheon of values, and a lot of hard cases are hard because the Constitution gives no simple rule of decision for the cases in which one of the values is truly at odds with another.”18 He explained, “We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well.”19 Reconciling those values calls for brilliant legal analysis, but it also requires judgment.20

Charged with ascertaining what the Constitution means and then creating law to implement its commands, the justices necessarily draw on a wide range of tools. They look to the Constitution’s text, how it was understood when it was ratified, our national history, judicial precedent, the Constitution’s values, and the practical needs of our time.21 No justice relies uniformly on one method of interpretation. They all practice the art and science of forging meaning from different materials, matching a timeless constitution to a changing world. In so doing, they are influenced by reason and principle, but also by their unique experiences and personal quirks.

Many other factors shape the Court’s decisions. Like any branch of government, the Court cares deeply about its legitimacy and its role in our democratic society.22 Blessed with tremendous power, cursed with great responsibility, and fated to serve in a cynical age, the justices of the Roberts Court know well that the power to persuade is among their mightiest weapons. Decisions on big data or gay rights, for example, interact with a quickly changing culture. That power, in turn, can affect the Court itself: the justices, after all, are very much a part of the culture they help shape. To study the Court is thus to examine an institution whose own rulings alter the path down which it travels.

The nine justices also practice their own form of politics. Not the low and occasionally demoralizing politics of our endless partisan struggle, but a high politics of constitutional principle, in which they compete to define the framework of our fundamental law.23 That politics, like all politics, contains an irreducible human element. The justices approach their task from different backgrounds, and with different temperaments and predispositions. They have each given a great deal of thought to the Constitution and its long history. Yet even with all of them acting in good faith, major conflict is unavoidable. Those disagreements unfold in a shifting matrix of alliances, betrayals, and rivalries, as a succession of justices address myriad issues all at once and debate them through the decades.

In those contests, every justice matters. For that reason, any accounting of the Roberts Court must grapple with the uncertainty inherent in a Court steered not just by one chief but by nine unique individuals—each with a different vision and voice, each with just one vote, and each keen to take the lead on certain issues. Adam White has thus speculated in the Wall Street Journal, “Maybe we have a court without leaders.”24 That’s an intriguing proposition, but we would amend it: the Roberts Court has nine leaders, not none.

Against this vibrant, complex reality of life at the Court, deep explanations usually flatten the justices into cardboard cutouts. In terms attributed to Mencken, these arguments are “simple, neat, and wrong,” even though many of them are actually quite intricate. Sometimes they ignore or miss out on revealing stories and intellectual struggles that reflect the justices’ worldviews; too often, they fail to take the justices’ beliefs seriously. Worse, they elide the uncertainty so vital to any satisfactory account of the Roberts Court, whose work involves an ever-shifting mix of principle, ideology, statesmanship, and personality.

In lieu of a comprehensive theory that maps the grand meaning of it all, we approach nine areas of law with an eye to elements of intrigue and surprise—and an openness to different ways of illuminating the Roberts Court. Some chapters emphasize a clash of principles, while others highlight personalities or practicalities. We zoom in on some important decisions and then zoom out to afford a panoramic view when details obscure the big picture. At times we draw heavily on history to unmask hidden meanings; in other circumstances, we focus mainly on the future. Individual justices take center stage when their contributions have proved to be especially important, or when an opinion sheds valuable light on their personality and beliefs.

Throughout, we treat the Court’s complexity not as an obstacle to be overcome but as a key to understanding why it has reached some surprising decisions and what its future holds. We aim to make useful generalizations about why the justices see things the way they do, what competing visions press against their core beliefs, and where their assumptions and aspirations are likely to lead them. To achieve that goal, we often focus on nodes of uncertainty—points where debate about the Constitution’s meaning is particularly intense, the Court is torn about its role, the effects of its decisions remain obscure, or the justices’ goals seem unclear or contradictory.

For centuries, Americans have looked to the Court with great expectation and even greater concern. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. remarked at a New York dinner party in 1913, “We are very quiet there, but it is the quiet of a storm center.”25 Public interest in the Court has spiked in recent years, as the justices have waded into debates over guns, privacy, health care, campaign finance, and many other controversial issues. Their pronouncements drive not only the daily headlines but also the moment-to-moment discourse that plays out online. This is as it should be. When the justices speak, our world changes. Whether lauded or scorned, their decisions shape our future.

This book is meant to help readers better understand their Court. By exploring the Roberts Court in all its wondrous complexity, we aim to bring to life the nine lawyers who gather in a conference room and create the rules by which we live. By charting uncertainty, we reveal possibility. Justice means something different to each of us; we will all evaluate the Court differently. But we can all agree that where the Court’s future is most uncertain, so is the justice it will render.

There’s a magic to it, a power that always sends a chill down one’s spine. The bell chimes. The velvet curtain rustles. The Marshal chants, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! . . . God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” Nine black-robed justices appear, all together, arrayed behind an arced bench that lets every one of them face the lawyers lucky enough to argue at our highest court. The air thickens with tension, the journalists lean forward, and a few of the justices crack jokes under their breath and struggle not to laugh too loudly. Then the Chief Justice of the United States calls the room to order, and the proceedings—most commonly oral argument or the announcement of an opinion—commence.

By convention, and because many other ways of slicing up the flow of time would be even more arbitrary, periods of Supreme Court history are named after chief justices. That is why one calls the current Court the “Roberts Court” and why, in this book, we focus on decisions issued after Roberts was confirmed as the Chief. In fact, though, chief justices wield little formal power on the Court. Most of a chief’s authority extends to the administration of the federal judiciary. Like his peers, a chief possesses only one vote in deciding cases and in selecting which cases the Court will hear. (The Court receives roughly eight thousand petitions for review per year and usually grants around seventy-five, with each grant requiring the vote of four justices.) Among his colleagues, the main perk of the job is the power to decide who writes the Opinion of the Court, at least when the Chief is in the majority. If he is not, then the most senior justice in the majority assumes the assignment power. The Chief also presides over oral argument and the post-argument conferences, during which the justices explain their views and cast tentative votes; in both capacities, he acts mainly as an evenhanded moderator.

Informally, though, the Chief can do a lot to set the tone at the Court. He is also the Court’s main emissary to the public and the other branches of government. So when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist passed away, in September 2005, the justices waited with bated breath to learn the identity of his successor. They did not have to wait long.

Two months earlier, on July 19, 2005, John G. Roberts Jr. had been nominated to the Court to replace Justice O’Connor, who had announced her resignation.26 Two days after Rehnquist’s death, George W. Bush withdrew that nomination and renominated Roberts for the position of Chief Justice. Roberts was confirmed on September 29, and the Roberts Court’s first term got under way on October 3.

Widely considered the best Supreme Court advocate of his generation, Roberts was known before his ascension to the Court as a gifted writer, skilled strategist, and brilliant legal mind. He had represented a range of clients, though his ideology leaned firmly rightward—as evidenced by his work at Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice and the cases and clients he had accepted in private practice.

Nominated to the Court after a brief stint on the federal bench in Washington, D.C., Roberts displayed considerable modesty during his confirmation hearings, offering restraint and minimalism as watchwords of his judicial philosophy. He would be fair, like an umpire, and would strive to build consensus around narrow opinions that did not decide any more than each case required. At oral argument, he divides his time between acting as a traffic cop for the other justices and pressing the lawyers with all the skill of a former master of their craft.

Because the justices arrange themselves in order of seniority, Antonin Scalia sits immediately to Roberts’s left (to a viewer facing the bench).27 Scalia donned the robes of a justice on September 26, 1986, when he was elevated from a federal court in Washington, D.C. Before his judicial career, Scalia had been a law professor, a private practitioner, and a lawyer in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Since his confirmation to the Court, Scalia has used his considerable wit, erudition, and rhetorical talents to leave an indelible mark on our jurisprudence. In his dazzling opinions and spirited lectures, he has evangelized originalism, arguing that constitutional interpretation is legitimate only when it is based on how Americans understood the Constitution at the time it was ratified. He usually leans strongly conservative, though his commitment to originalism and respecting the plain meaning of statutory text can lead him to support what are typically seen as liberal positions. More willing than any of his colleagues to wield an acidic pen, Scalia is known for a pugnacious and sometimes cutting style that alternately amuses and provokes the other justices. His personality carries through at oral argument, where his comments and questions have earned him the title of “funniest justice.”28

Clarence Thomas sits to Scalia’s left.29 Whereas Scalia is originalism’s greatest public advocate, Thomas is its most devoted practitioner, willing to reimagine whole fields of constitutional law from scratch. Thomas was confirmed on October 15, 1991, after the closest Senate vote in Supreme Court history: fifty-two to forty-eight. George H. W. Bush had appointed Thomas, then a judge in Washington, D.C., to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, the liberal civil rights icon who had argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1952 and 1953. Critics complained, unfairly and incorrectly, that Thomas wasn’t up to the task of being a justice. Opponents of the appointment also focused on his deeply conservative politics and the hotly disputed details of a sexual harassment scandal. Sickened by the whole experience, Thomas famously deemed the confirmation proceedings a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks . . . who in any way deign to think for themselves . . . unless [they] kowtow to an old order.”30

This was not Thomas’s first painful encounter with the establishment; nor would it be his last. These experiences have led him to a fundamental distrust of what he views as the consensus of self-righteous (and often hypocritical) elites. That skepticism shines through in his opinions. Willing to go it alone, he frequently writes separately to propose innovative, originalist views of constitutional law. Unlike his invariably boisterous peers, Thomas is nearly always silent at argument. “Maybe it’s the Southerner in me,” he once commented. “Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.”31

Thomas’s quest for originalist purity could not contrast more starkly with Stephen Breyer’s love of compromise and devoted striving for workable, pragmatic solutions.32 Seated to Thomas’s left, Breyer was nominated by Bill Clinton and confirmed on August 3, 1994. Breyer has devoted his career on the Court to the principle of “active liberty”—the idea that, when deciding cases, courts should do what they can to foster democratic dialogue and public involvement in the political process.33 He believes to his core that, with the right incentives and respect for technocratic expertise, government can play an essential role in enhancing society’s welfare. This optimistic view of governmental processes is informed by his experience as a highly effective member of Senator Ted Kennedy’s staff on the Judiciary Committee in the 1970s, where he saw true bipartisanship in action. It also reflects his formidable work on regulation as a scholar of administrative and antitrust law, technical fields that drew on Breyer’s love of empirical research.

Allergic to bright-line rules and strict categories, Breyer almost always prefers that the Court identify all relevant considerations and then balance them to reach the right, workable result under the circumstances. At oral argument, this disposition (and his background as a law professor) makes him a master of hypotheticals. Unpacking one unlikely scenario after another—sometimes causing lawyers to lose track of which one they are addressing—Breyer enthusiastically probes the limits of legal arguments.

Sonia Sotomayor, nominated by Barack Obama and confirmed on August 6, 2009, anchors the left wing of the bench. The first Hispanic justice, Sotomayor was raised in public housing projects in the Bronx and overcame many daunting obstacles in the course of her remarkable career—a story she has told in a captivating memoir, My Beloved World.34 After graduating from Princeton and Yale Law School, Sotomayor worked as a New York City prosecutor and then as a commercial litigator. She also associated with a Puerto Rican civil rights group and served as an active member of New York City’s Campaign Finance Board. She sat as a federal trial judge in Manhattan from 1992 to 1998 and as an appeals court judge from 1998 to 2009. These experiences exposed her to an unusually diverse cross section of American law and society.

On the Court, Sotomayor has emerged as a voice for common sense. She has also displayed a keen sensitivity to the potential for injustice in law enforcement, calling attention to maltreatment in prisons, abuses of the death penalty system, dangers to privacy rights, and police and prosecutorial misconduct. In her questions and opinions, Sotomayor is a “judge’s judge”—steeped deeply in the logic of law and the context in which cases arise. More than most of her colleagues, though, Sotomayor has also maintained an active public presence, dispensing wisdom on Sesame Street, trading jokes on The Daily Show, salsa dancing on Univision, and leading the 2014 New Year’s Eve Countdown in New York City.35 After publishing her best-selling memoir in 2013, Sotomayor traveled the country to share her inspirational story. “It is my great hope that I’ll be a great justice,” she remarked, but the “more important [measure of my life’s meaning] is my values and my impact on people who feel inspired in any way by me.”36 In this sense, Sotomayor has bravely engineered a different kind of public niche for a justice—one that embraces the humanity and experiences that guide her hand and allows her to serve as a respected role model to others facing tough challenges in life.37

Swinging back across the bench, Anthony Kennedy, less senior only than Roberts and Scalia, sits to the Chief’s right.38 Nominated by Ronald Reagan from his post on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California, Kennedy was sworn in on February 18, 1988. Raised in Sacramento, Kennedy returned home to California after studying at Stanford, the London School of Economics, and Harvard Law School. Before his elevation to the bench, Kennedy pursued a successful career in private practice; as a lawyer and lower court judge, he taught constitutional law at the McGeorge School of Law, where his popular lectures were the stuff of local legend.

Energetic, friendly, and engaging, Kennedy is also a true humanist—a lover of history, literature, art, and science. He remains deeply attached to California, but he is also a world traveler, and he has spent many summers working with judges from foreign nations. Kennedy’s politics tend rightward with a pronounced libertarian streak, especially on social issues, but they defy ready categorization (and therefore frustrate those who seem determined to force each justice into “left” or “right” voting blocs). An unmistakable constant, though, is that Kennedy is driven by strong beliefs about the Court’s duty to protect liberty. In that project, Kennedy is a generative constitutional theorist, willing to work with raw principles of liberty, equality, and dignity to address the great questions of our age. He is also exquisitely attuned to ways in which the Constitution creates a structure of government meant to safeguard our freedom.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits to Kennedy’s right. Appointed by Bill Clinton, Ginsburg moved across town from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and took her seat on August 10, 1993. Ginsburg’s judicial service capped a remarkable career as the nation’s premier legal advocate for women’s rights, a career in which she argued several Supreme Court cases that established the constitutional basis for rights to gender equality. It is especially fitting, then, that several of Ginsburg’s most influential opinions on the Court have involved sex discrimination.39 Yet Ginsburg’s interests are wide ranging; before she became a judge, she taught civil procedure at Columbia Law School, and she remains keenly attuned to the mechanics of justice.

Ginsburg can be reserved and soft-spoken in public, but she is known and respected among her colleagues for her formidable intellect, boundless energy, and active exercise regimen. (Her trainer has been known to push other justices by pointing out that she lifts more than they do.) Though she has a lively sense of humor, Ginsburg is professional, polite, and extraordinarily precise in her opinions and questions. She cares deeply about the role of the Court and frequently speaks about the need to find a balance between advancing constitutional values and respecting the democratic process. Ginsburg is herself a vocal participant in a dialogue with the other branches; on several occasions, she has openly (and successfully) called on Congress to reverse what she sees as grievous errors in the Court’s sex discrimination rulings. In recent years, as the senior left-leaning justice, Ginsburg has emerged as a savvy and respected leader—and has written a number of celebrated dissents in health care, affirmative action, and voting rights cases.

Next comes Samuel A. Alito Jr., who joined the Court on January 31, 2006, after George W. Bush nominated him to replace Sandra Day O’Connor. Alito was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and raised in a nearby suburb. A stellar career led him through Reagan’s Department of Justice, the role of top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, and a federal appellate judgeship. Along the way, he developed a brand of cautious conservatism—a belief that law and practices developed in bygone eras merit substantial respect but should not be mindlessly embraced. He strongly respects tradition, though he acknowledges that distinctly modern challenges may call for innovations. He values individual rights, but he cares deeply about respecting community and inherited social structures. On the Court, Alito has emerged as an unabashed critic of overreliance on originalism and an advocate for “law and order” approaches to criminal justice. He is also a devastating questioner; in 2010, Jan Crawford of CBS wrote that “he’s like a one-justice Delta Force: he’s so quiet and low-key while drawing in the lawyers with his questions that he manages to plant several bombs before they even realize he’s on the attack.” 40

Although usually serious and direct at argument, Alito is known for a gentle, pointed wit. At a highbrow dinner in 2012, for example, he delicately summarized the facts of a free speech case involving Nicole Richie, asking, “Have you ever tried to get cow bleep out of a Prada purse, it’s not so bleeping simple.” 41 Alito also has a gift for literary and artistic images that drive home his points. In a case about public monuments and the many messages they can simultaneously convey, he reached out to a famous cultural icon: the “Greco-Roman mosaic of the word ‘Imagine’ that was donated to New York City’s Central Park in memory of John Lennon.” Alito noted that some observers of that mosaic might “imagine” the “musical contributions that John Lennon would have made if he had not been killed.” Others, though, might instead recall the lyrics of Lennon’s famous song and “imagine” a world “without religion, countries, possessions, greed, or hunger.” 42 Alito then used this double meaning to make a strong legal argument.

Seated at the far right side of the bench, Elena Kagan is the Roberts Court’s junior justice. Appointed by Barack Obama and sworn in on August 7, 2010, Kagan is the only current justice who wasn’t previously a judge, and she therefore brings valuable diversity to the Court. Kagan made her name as an adviser to Bill Clinton, the Dean of Harvard Law School, and the Solicitor General under Obama. In each capacity, she developed a reputation for brilliance, good judgment, and an uncanny ability to build bridges with those of different views. Her famous humor was on full display at her confirmation hearing, where she responded to a senator’s question about where she was on Christmas: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

That poker-faced charm remains undimmed by Kagan’s service on the Court; in 2011, she cheerfully introduced an intimidating opinion by observing, “If you understand anything I say here, you will likely be a lawyer, and you will have had your morning cup of coffee.” Kagan has already earned plaudits for her straightforward, highly readable prose style and her streak of real-world pragmatism. Her views on many issues, though, remain unclear—partly because they are still developing and partly because Kagan has held her cards close to the chest, writing fewer separate opinions than any other justice each year since she joined the Court. The revelation of Kagan’s principal concerns and distinctive views of constitutional law has only just begun.

This is a tale of nine powerful personalities, nine distinctive worldviews, all brought to bear on the triumphs and travails of the American people. Confirmed to the Court for life and vested with great influence over how we understand and implement the Constitution, the justices can frame the way we live. Through their votes and opinions, through acts of sheer lawmaking and the subtler powers of persuasion, they address many of the burning issues of our age. Their rulings reverberate backward and forward in time but also influence the most mundane aspects of the here and now: whom we can marry, what guns we can buy, where our children go to school, and whether we can be compelled to buy health insurance. They shape both global affairs and our most intimate privacy.

The story of the Roberts Court is thus more than just the narrative of a single institution. It is also essential to the story of “We the People” and our ongoing efforts to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” It is a story marked by uncertainty, but one all the more thrilling for its lack of a predetermined outcome. As the justices of the Roberts Court sit around their conference table and make law, the destiny of millions of Americans—those who live today and those still to come—rests heavily on their shoulders. This is a mighty burden. But nobody ever said that establishing justice was easy.

Copyright © 2014 by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Uncertain Justice            1

1. Equality: Are We There Yet?            15

2. Health Care: Liberty on the Line            52

3. Campaign Finance: Follow the Money            88

4. Freedom of Speech: Sex, Lies, and Video Games            121

5. Gun Rights: Armed and Dangerous            154

6. Presidential Power: Hail to the Chief            185

7. Privacy: What Have You Got to Hide?            219

8. Rights for Sale: Discounting the Constitution            253

9. Making Rights Real: Access to Justice            282

Epilogue: The Court and the Constitution            315

Notes            321

Acknowledgments            379

Index            383

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