There is a common media myth that the current U.S. Supreme Court, or at least a majority of the current justices, is “conservative.”
But if a “conservative” justice is one who consistently interprets the Constitution in accordance with traditional methods of judging—as the Founders intended for it to be interpreted—then the Court is anything but conservative.
On social issues the Court has been pushing society to the Left. Otherwise, the best description of its jurisprudence is “status quo.” And in this instance, preserving the status quo renders the Court liberal, not conservative.
That is because the status quo the justices are preserving is a body of liberal jurisprudence created in the 20th century when the Court was usually controlled by “progressive” majorities.
The Court’s tendency to protect liberal jurisprudence appears even in cases where the specific outcomes are pleasing to conservatives. In fact, the “conservative” outcomes often are relatively marginal—minor victories—while the jurisprudence that underlies the result is a major triumph for liberals.
Three cases from the Supreme Court term illustrate the point.
The first is the famous Hobby Lobby case, in which the Court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects an employer’s right not to provide abortifacients. I have written elsewhere about a liberal victory in Hobby Lobby that received almost no publicity. But there was another, more important, liberal victory on a point of fundamental principle.
The Hobby Lobby dispute arose from federal regulations of employment and of health insurance purportedly authorized by Congress in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Unlike the “tax” justification for Obamacare’s individual insurance mandate, the supposed constitutional basis for those regulations is Congress’s Commerce Power, contained in the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause.
Everyone concedes, at least in theory, that Congress has only the authority the Constitution grants it—Congress’s “enumerated powers.” But properly construed, Congress’s enumerated power to regulate “Commerce” does not encompass employment relations or insurance, except in some peripheral situations. The Supreme Court recognized this consistently for the Constitution’s first 150 years. Indeed, during that time the Court held repeatedly, and unanimously, that most insurance is NOT “Commerce.” It was not until “progressive” justices took control in in the late 1930s and 1940s that the rules changed, and it was not until relatively recently that Congress began systematically to interfere in the insurance market.
A bench consisting of traditional (conservative) justices, therefore, would have held that the Obamacare regulations were outside the federal government’s enumerated powers, and thereby invalid for that reason. Such a court would not have reached the RFRA issue because there was no need to do so.
A second example from the Supreme Court term just past is the campaign finance decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. This case invalidated a congressional effort to limit the total amount any person could donate to all candidates combined. The basis for the decision was the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Media outlets have described this case also as a “conservative” triumph.
Yet a truly conservative court would never have reached the First Amendment issue because in presuming to regulate campaigns, Congress again exceeded its enumerated powers. The Constitution does confer on Congress authority to regulate the “Manner of holding [congressional] Elections.” But this constitutional grant does not extend to regulation of campaigns.
The scope of the constitutional grant is quite clear from the historical record, as I explained at length in a 2010 article cited last year by Justice Thomas, the only member of the Court who consistently interprets the Constitution in the traditional (”conservative”) manner. Congress’s authority to regulate “the Manner of holding Elections” refers strictly to voting mechanics. For example, Congress may specify whether we vote by open or secret ballot and whether a candidate needs a majority to win or can win by a plurality. But the Constitution leaves regulation of campaigns to state laws governing defamation, corrupt practices, and so forth.
The Supreme Court did not hold that “Manner of Election” included campaigns until a “progressive” majority did so in 1941. The Court's accompanying opinion was based on little or no inquiry into the real meaning of the constitutional language.
Yet in McCutcheon the justices (and the parties) accepted that suspect holding without question, and proceeded immediately to the First Amendment issue.
The third example from the term just ended is NLRB v. Noel Canning, which unanimously invalidated some of President Obama’s “recess appointments.” The Constitution’s Recess Appointments Clause is an enumerated power of the President that grants him the prerogative, without Senate consent, “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate.” The Court needed to decide (1) whether the “Recess” meant only the intersession recess or encompassed other breaks as well, and (2) whether for a vacancy to “happen” it had to arise during the recess or could merely continue into a recess.
The Founding-Era record is crystal clear on both questions: A “Recess” means only an intersession break, and the vacancy must arise then. A traditional (“conservative”) bench would have so found. And, in fact, four justices did so find—relying on an article I wrote earlier this year that documented the Founders’ understanding at length.
But the majority did not follow the Recess Appointments Clause as the Founders understood it. Rather, it applied a sort of balancing test of the “living constitution” variety. President Obama lost only because he had violated even that flaccid and malleable standard.
The result was a small conservative victory, but at great cost: That cost was a complete revision and a serious weakening of an important constitutional check-and-balance—yet another example of the fundamentally liberal jurisprudence of a Court many in the national media insist on calling “conservative.”
Rob Natelson was a law professor for 25 years and now serves as Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver. His constitutional publications have been cited 16 times in four separate Supreme Court cases since 2013.