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Volume 10, Issue 4 (Feb 2013)


The Roberts Court in an Era of Polarized Politics

Cornell W. Clayton
  • Corresponding author
  • Washington State University, Johnson Tower 801, PO Box 644880, Pullman, WA 99164, USA, Tel.: +(509) 335-2427
  • Email:
/ Lucas K. McMillan
  • Washington State University, Johnson Tower 621, PO Box 644880, Pullman, WA 99164, USA, Tel.: +(509) 335-5260
  • Email:
Published Online: 2013-02-09 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0015


This essay examines the Roberts Court and its relationship to the Obama administration. It begins by analyzing the ways in which the Court has been structured by electoral politics over the past 40 years, arguing that the Court’s more conservative, divided, and polarized decision-making reflects the politics of the post-1968 electoral regime. It concludes by considering the impact of President Obama’s 2012 reelection, contending that there is little indication that Obama aspires to restructure the courts fundamentally or to push major new constitutional initiatives. Although Obama will undoubtedly have an opportunity to fill at least one seat on the Court in the coming years, he is unlikely to alter its ideological balance, leaving Justice Kennedy as the swing justice. Thus, while liberals can expect isolated judicial victories, Obama’s reelection does not portend an imminent shift in Court decision-making. Only time will tell, however, whether it will have longer-term consequences for American constitutional development.


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About the article

Cornell W. Clayton

Cornell W. Clayton is the Director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service and the Claudius O. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Washington State University.

Lucas K. McMillan

Lucas K. McMillan is a Doctoral Student in Political Science at Washington State University.

Corresponding author: Cornell W. Clayton, Washington State University, Johnson Tower 801, PO Box 644880, Pullman, WA 99164, USA, Tel.: +(509) 335-2427

Published Online: 2013-02-09

GOP candidates won presidential elections in 1968 and 1972 (Richard M. Nixon), 1980 and 1984 (Ronald Reagan), 1988 (George H.W. Bush); 2000, 2004 (George W. Bush). During the previous 36-year period the GOP candidate won the presidency only twice in 1952 and 1956 (Dwight D. Eisenhower).

GOP appointments include: Warren Burger 1969–1986; Harry Blackmun 1970–1994; Lewis Powell 1972–1987; William Rehnquist 1972–2005; John Paul Stevens 1975–2010; Sandra Day O’Connor 1981–2006; Antonin Scalia 1986-present; Anthony Kennedy 1987–present; David Souter 1990–2009; Clarence Thomas 1991–present; John Roberts 2005–present; and Samuel Alito 2006–present. The Democratic appointees include: Ruth Bader Ginsburg 1993–present; Stephen Breyer 1994–present; Sonia Stotomayor 2009–present; and Elena Kagan 2010–present.

Martin and Quinn (2002) scores are dynamic measures that place a justice’s ideal preference point on a common ideological continuum. They do so for each justice in each term since 1937, and are estimated using longitudinal data in the form of per-term merit votes derived from the Supreme Court Judicial Database (http://mqscores.wustl.edu). For easier interpretation of the data, the trends presented in Figure 2 are based on an analysis of 5-year intervals from 1937 to 2011. The horizontal axis shows every year in order to include all presidential terms during this time period.

All data in this section unless otherwise indicated are collected from SCOTUSblog’s end of the term statistical analysis (SCOTUSblog 2012).

Both cases where Roberts joined the liberal bloc to make a bare majority occurred at the end of the 2011 term; NFIB v. Sebelius and Arizona v. United States. The latter was a 5–3 decision with Kennedy also in the majority but Justice Kagan not participating.

See joint dissent at 4–5.

See United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876); Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886); and United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174 (1939).

More than 33 groups filed amici curiae (“friends of the Court”) briefs, including one brief signed by 58 US Senators and 251 members of the House of Representatives, most of which were Republican, asking the Court to apply the Second Amendment to the states.

Democrats supported the bill by a vote of 49–2 in the Senate and 198–12 in the House, while Republicans opposed it by a vote of 37–12 in the Senate and 176–41 in the House.

One notable exception however was the Chief Justice Robert’s opinion for a unanimous Court in FCC v. AT&T (2011), which held that corporations do not have a personal privacy interest that would protect them from disclosing public records regarding charges.

Data taken from the Administrative Office of the US Courts online website, accessed on December 18, 2012; http://www.uscourts.gov/JudgesAndJudgeships/JudicialVacancies.aspx.

Using the dynamic Martin-Quinn ideological scores (Martin and Quinn, 2002), Sotomayor, during her first two terms on the Court, has a conservative MQ average (0.018). She replaced David Souter, who had a liberal MQ average (–0.812). Justice Kagan’s first term MQ score (0.029) is also more conservative than the justice she replaced, John Paul Stevens (–1.505).

E.g., Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), and Ricci v. DeStefano (2009).

Northwest Austin Municipal v. Holder (2009). Only Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion, said that the provision should be invalidated. He reiterated this view in Perry v. Perez (2012), where a per curiam opinion for a unanimous Court held that a U.S. District Court in Texas did not violate the VRA when it redrew 36 of Texas’ electoral districts.

Citation Information: The Forum, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0015. Export Citation

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