Do the Justices Play Nicely Together?

SCOTUS justicesFor the second autumn in a row, the federal public defenders here in Milwaukee were kind enough to invite me to speak on the U.S. Supreme Court’s criminal docket, reviewing last term’s cases and previewing the new term.  The event is a great opportunity for me to think about patterns and themes that cut across individual cases.  I plan now to recapitulate some of my obervations in a series of short blog posts over the next couple weeks.  This is the first.

It is commonly thought that the Court is bitterly divided along ideological lines.  In criminal cases, the stereotypical picture in recent terms would look like this: four conservative Justices (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito) vote for the government, four liberal Justices (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) vote for the defendant, and Justice Kennedy in the middle gets to decide what the law is.  The picture is not an attractive one, suggesting that most of the Justices decide cases on a knee-jerk basis, without really listening either to the advocates or to their own colleagues.

How well does the stereotype actually reflect reality?  The answer depends on what type of criminal case you are talking about. 

The point is nicely illustrated by comparing two sets of cases from last term: the statutory interpretation cases and the investigation (that is, search, seizure, and interrogation) cases.  As I have categorized the cases, there were six in each set.  (The cases are listed at the end of this post.)

The statutory interpretation cases do not look anything like the stereotype.  In these cases, the Court was required to interpret either a substantive criminal statute or a statute containing a mandatory minimum sentence.  In these cases, the Court was remarkably cohesive.  Three of the six decisions were unanimous, while the other three were 7-2.  That makes a grand total of six dissenting votes in six cases.  Those six votes were cast by four different Justices from across the ideological spectrum.  None of the conservative Justices voted for the government in all six cases, while none of the liberal Justices voted for the defendant all the time.  Indeed, conservative Justices Scalia and Roberts voted for the defendant more often than not (four of six cases).

The investigation cases conform much more closely to the stereotype.  Four of the six cases were 5-4 decisions.  In all, the six cases produced eighteen dissenting votes, or three times as many as the statutory interpretation cases.  Moreover, the divisions generally (although not always) followed the stereotypical ideological pattern.  In three of the four 5-4 decisions, the conservatives and liberals each voted as block, with Justice Kennedy casting the tie-breaking vote (siding sometimes with the conservatives and sometimes with the liberals).  In the six investigation cases, the four conservative Justices collectively cast exactly one pro-defendant vote.  Put differently, given twenty-four opportunites to vote for a defendant, the conservatives did so only once.  (This compares with fourteen pro-defendant votes by conservative Justices in the statutory interpretation cases.)

Although I haven’t attempted to quantify this, my impression is that the Justices’ rhetoric in the investigation cases was also considerably more heated.  In particular, there seemed to be charges flying from both sides that the other side was not honestly and consistently adhering to the doctrine of stare decisis.  I did not observe similar attacks in any of the statutory interpretation cases.

What accounts for the discrepancy between the two sets of cases?  One possibility is the triumph of Justice Scalia’s preferred methodology in one area: that is, textualism in the statutory interpretation area.  I’ll have more to say about the Court’s textualism in another post, but the key point for now is this: the statutory interpretation cases play out as exercises in determining the meaning of particular words in particular statutory contexts.  There is very little discussion of broader public policy considerations that would cut across specific statutes.  As a result, there does not seem to be a lot at stake in the statutory interpretation cases, and there are few obvious implications for the Justices’ commitments to their various competing visions of the criminal justice system.  When cases are framed this way, it should not be surprising that the Justices find it relatively easy to reach common ground.

By contrast, textualism provides little clear guidance in the investigation cases (what exactly makes a search “unreasonable”?) and plays little discernible role in the Justices’ reasoning.  Indeed, what the investigation cases are really about is the scope of extratextual exclusionary rules, which do implicate core ideological commitments on both sides of the political aisle.  To liberals, the exclusionary rules (closely associated with the Warren Court and the broader civil rights revolution of that era) represent an important symbolic commitment to individual libery and equal rights in the face of a criminal justice system that has all too often wielded its power in discriminatory ways.  To conservatives, the exclusionary rules represent everything that was bad about the 1960’s: collective security sacrificed in the name of individual liberty, elites overriding the will of the “silent majority,” and so forth.  The Justices write about the exclusionary rules in terms of costs and benefits, but in truth the costs and benefits are unknown and probably unknowable.  Given the lack of any objective measure, the cost-benefit balancing necessarily becomes ideological . . . and the Justices don’t play so nicely together.

Statutory Interpretation Cases — includes cases on substantive criminal and mandatory minimum statutes, but excludes cases on the habeas corpus statute and other procedural laws

  • U.S. v. Hayes, 129 S. Ct. 1079
  • Dean v. U.S., 129 S. Ct. 1849
  • Chambers v. U.S., 129 S. Ct. 687
  • Abuelhawa v. U.S., 129 S. Ct. 2102
  • Boyle v. U.S., 129 S. Ct. 2237
  • Flores-Figueroa v. U.S., 129 S. Ct. 1886

Investigation Cases — includes Fourth Amendment and interrogation cases

  •  Herring v. U.S., 129 S. Ct. 695
  • Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710
  • Montejo v. Louisiana, 129 S. Ct. 2079
  • Corley v. U.S., 129 S. Ct. 1558
  • Arizona v. Johnson, 129 S. Ct. 781
  • Kansas v. Ventris, 129 S. Ct. 1841 


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Nick Passe

    I think the recent (past decade or so) line of Confrontation Clause cases deserves a brief mention here, too. Scalia’s championing of the right to confront witnesses has been interesting.

  2. Michael M. O'Hear

    Nick, you are absolutely right about the Confrontation Clause cases. The same might be said about the Apprendi line of cases on the right to a jury trial, which Scalia has also championed. I’ll post later about the new cases in these two lines from last term, Melendez-Diaz and Ice.

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