It is a widely held belief among Americans that the appropriate role of the U.S. Supreme Court is to check the majoritarian excesses of the other two branches of American government. The legislative and executive branches of government are elected by majority vote. In the national legislature, members of the Senate are elected by popular vote in their home-states, and members of the House of Representatives are elected by popular vote from smaller sub-state districts. In the executive branch, the President and Vice-President are elected by national popular vote mediated through the Electoral College system. Rule by majority consent is the legitimating principle of each of these branches. But the third branch is different. The third branch of national government is headed by the Supreme Court, a nine-member panel of judges (called “justices”) who are each appointed to life terms by the sitting President with the approval of the Senate. These judges enjoy such privileges as life terms with good behavior and the guarantee of undiminished compensation in order to at least partially insulate them from the pressures of popular politics. This insulation is often described as judicial independence and for most people it means that judicial decisions will be based upon the dictates of the law, rather than the vagaries of political fashion. Says law professor Amanda Frost:
The Constitution grants federal judges life tenure and protections against diminution of their salaries, which insulates them from various political and social pressures. Those guarantees allow courts to make unpopular rulings, to stand up to the other two branches of government without fear of retribution, and to assure litigants that judges are not beholden either to state or federal interests. (2008, 1625)
This distinct organization and expectation with regard to the third branch of national government reflects a commitment to what is often called the rule of law.
The rule of law is contrasted with the rule of men, implying a legal system which is non-arbitrary. Typically, a political system is held to instantiate the rule of law to the extent that its legal rules are general in nature, prospective in operation, and equal in application to persons without regard to suspect classifications. Often, and most practically, the rule of law is understood as a commitment to individual rights, especially those of minorities against powerful and potentially encroaching majorities. But rather than supposing a strict antagonism between majority rule and the rule of law, some scholars conceive of a balancing act where “The rule of law rests, first, on the inability of the one or the few to control the many, and second, on the willingness of the many to leave some scope for universal rights” (Helmke & Rosenbluth 347-48).
But how is judicial independence related to the rule of law? A commitment to a rule of law system means in part commitment to an institutional arrangement capable of cultivating and sustaining it. If the first two branches are legitimated by majoritarianism—compliance with the wishes of a majority of citizens—then the third branch might be legitimated by its capacity to resist the will of the majority when such will encroaches upon that sphere reserved for individual rights in general and minority rights in particular. Thus, the Supreme Court might be said to be a counter-majoritarian institution meant to serve as a check on the majoritarian tendencies of the other two branches where those tendencies would lead to violation of rule of law principles.
But is the Court truly counter-majoritarian? It depends on what behavior by the Court is required to consider it so. According to Robert Dahl’s “Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-maker” (1957), for the Court to be counter-majoritarian is for it to have the demonstrated capacity and willingness to act contrary to the preferences of the current officeholders of two elected branches, which Dahl refers to as the national majority (284). Dahl assumes that there are several reasons to expect the Court to act in concert with the national majority coalition rather than as a counter-majoritarian “Galahad” in defense of minorities (id.). He cites three problems with the Galahad Thesis, each of a different type: ideological, logical, and factual. Ideologically, it would violate the majority-rule principle upon which the American democracy is based if the Court were to act in a counter-majoritarian fashion. Logically, given the selection of judges by popularly elected political elites, one should not expect the court to be at odds with the national majority coalition—except for very short transitional periods in the composition of the national majority coalition. Factually, Dahl argues, the Court has never acted in such a fashion in its 167-year history up till the time of his writing.
Dahl supports his factual claim with a test he devises in which he examines the frequency, direction, and decisiveness of Supreme Court invalidations of statutory enactments on constitutional grounds. First, to determine the frequency of invalidations, Dahl confines his observations to those invalidations of congressional statutes which occurred within 4 years of enactment, supposing that he is weeding out invalidations of enactments which are no longer supported by a live majority coalition. He then examines the direction of the invalidation, i.e., whether the invalidation favors a minority group. Finally, Dahl examines the decisiveness of the invalidation, i.e., the extent to which the Court’s decision stands and is not circumvented by a willful national majority coalition. Overall, the Court fails Dahl’s test, seldom invalidating laws within the 4 year period, seldom in the direction of minorities, and seldom sustained. Dahl elaborates his findings by noting that “[f]ew of the Court’s policy decisions can be interpreted sensibly in terms of a ‘majority’ versus a ‘minority’” (294). Rather, policy at the national level is the outcome of conflict, bargaining, and agreement among minorities, no group of preference-holders being large or powerful enough to dominate all others. The true role of the Court is that of legitimizer: “at its best the Court operates to confer legitimacy, not simply on the particular and parochial policies of the dominant political alliance, but upon the basic patterns of behavior required for the operation of a democracy” (295).
Jonathan Casper, in his well-known 1976 response to Dahl, “The Supreme Court and National Policy Making,” finds Dahl’s test of counter-majoritarianism too strict and argues that “the Court participates more significantly in national policy than Dahl’s argument suggests” (50). In particular, Casper points out that there are plenty of instances where a 4-year restricted observation of invalidations is unwarranted and excludes much of the Court’s counter-majoritarian activity. Second, in contrast to his 4-year restrictive rule of invalidations, Dahl allows decades to pass to observe whether the Court’s action is countermanded by the national majority coalition. Third, Casper points out how easily Dahl, by narrow specification of his model, misses Court action which is influential in shaping and influencing legislative enactments through selective interpretation of statutory provisions, a considerable part of what the Court does. Finally, Casper also looks at the Warren Court activism which between 1957 and 1976 alone invalidated one-quarter of all cases ever invalidated and in quite Galahadian fashion. Therefore, by Casper’s definition, the Supreme Court of his day was quite active and counter-majoritarian, even if not in the most restrictive Dahlian sense.
Gerald Rosenberg, in his seminal work, The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? (2008), marshaled an astonishing amount of evidence in support of his thesis that it is virtually impossible to achieve significant social reform through litigation. Similar to the Dahlian Galahad, he defines the Dynamic Court view as the belief that “courts can be effective producers of significant social reform [and] in some cases, they can be more effective than other governmental institutions” (27). Rosenberg defines the Constrained Court view as holding “that courts will most likely not be effective producers of significant social reform for three reasons: the limited nature of constitutional rights, the lack of judicial independence, and the judiciary’s inability to develop appropriate policies and its lack of powers of implementation” (15). Rosenberg sees the Court as constrained and ill-suited to defend minority rights.
Rosenberg sets his sights on the famous Brown decision, long considered unassailable proof of the efficacy of the Supreme Court in vindicating minority rights, to demonstrate that the Constrained Court view better characterizes the Court’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. The Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), overruled its prior holding in Plessy v. Ferguson (1898) and declared that the practice of segregation was “inherently unequal” and, therefore, in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision ordered the end of public school segregation in the United States. Proponents of the Dynamic Court view see the decision as a major victory for civil rights and a crucial turning point for the movement. Rosenberg points out that—with a few high-profile exceptions—virtually no desegregation actually occurred until after Congress enacted a slew of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1968. Rosenberg also examines issues such as public accommodations and transportation, public housing, and voter registration. In each case, a clear pattern emerges:
Courageous and praiseworthy decisions were rendered, and nothing changed. Only when Congress and the executive branch acted in tandem with the courts did change occur in these fields. In terms of judicial effects, then, Brown and its progeny stand for the proposition that courts are impotent to produce significant social reform (70).
Thus, “Brown is a paradigm,” says Rosenberg, “but for precisely the opposite view” (id.). Throughout his book, Rosenberg considers, tests, and ultimately rejects theories about indirect ways in which the Court’s action might have contributed to the eventual desegregation of the South. Within this seminal work, Rosenberg deals similarly with other policy areas which are regarded as evidence of a dynamic counter-majoritarian court and with similar results. (See Rosenburg’s tribute to Dahl, one of his early influences)
Plenty of other scholars have found the Court politically constrained. The Court has been found to be influenced by court-curbing measures by the other branches (Clark 2009) as well as by public opinion (Casillas 2011; also see Mishler and Sheehan 1993 for empirical evidence of changes in court composition in response to changes in public opinion and changes in a given panel’s decisions in response to changes). Graber (2005) suggests in Dahlian fashion that the Court is really a politically constructed institution, basically relied upon by the other two branches for political cover. What the Court does on this view is allow for the shifting of politically unpopular or intractable decisions and serves as an anomalous balance-shifter in democratic politics.
This presents a mixed picture both of what it means for the Court to be counter-majoritarian and for whether and to what extent such a thing is desirable. It appears that the Court is a balance-shifter in a highly competitive national policymaking environment. It also appears that the Court is somewhat structurally independent but not totally isolated from politics. This is unsurprising. Justices come from the population and there is no reason to assume that they are political eunuchs. They think and are motivated at least in part by their own priors (Segal and Spaeth 1993, Posner 2008), they are influenced by the political environment (Casillas 2011, Clark 2009, Mishler and Sheehan 1993), and the they operate at a level of the judicial hierarchy where the disputes they are called upon to settle are complex, intractable, under-determined by law alone, and where it falls to them to simply decide. Justice Roberts claimed to call balls and strikes, but it is clear to nearly everyone that by the time a matter reaches the Court, a ball or a strike is simply what one can get a majority to vote in support of. This is not to say that the law exerts no force, but that there is often not enough law to go on at the level of the Supreme Court. What constitutes cruel and unusual punishment? There is considerable room for reasonable minds to differ. What specific activities constitute executive power? The Constitution does not define the term. Does today’s government have a duty to affirmatively act to reverse the effects of its own past misconduct with respect to disfavored minorities? If so, how far can it go before it crosses a different line with respect to other groups? The Court is often called upon to decide. And it does not decide in a socio-political vacuum.
But the Court is able to perform this role in which it decides the intractable disputes over constitutional values with a high degree of diffuse support, certainly higher than the explicitly political branches (Caldeira and Gibson 1992). Maybe the Court enjoys this support because it is understood as being a counter-majoritarian final arbiter of what the law requires. The perception of its unique apolitical role seems to help it maintain an unusual amount of public support which is resilient even in those instances where it disappoints.
Below, Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer engage in a lively discussion of their view of the role of the Court, the role of the Justices, and approaches to judicial interpretation. It is worth viewing in its entirety:
The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter….
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source.