Correcting Misconceptions about the Roberts Court

The Supreme Court has not yet ruled against the individual mandate, and who knows whether it will. Yet this has not stopped commentators from making sweeping charges about the Court. Many commentators, for instance, are charging that the Roberts Court is “activist.” For some, “activist” is just a label for judges that make decisions they don’t like; one man’s “activist” is another’s constitutional paladin. For others, however, the label “activist” is used to describe a court that is particularly “active” in overturning precedent and invalidating laws, and thereby altering the course of the law. So, for instance, James Fallows claims the Court, and Justices Roberts and Alito in particular, “actively second-guess and re-do existing law” and Jeffrey Toobin charged “the current Court has matched contempt for Congress with a disdain for many of the Court’s own precedents.”

The problem with these characterizations of the court is that if by “judicial activism” one means a willingness to overturn precedents and invalidate federal laws, the Roberts Court is the least activist court of the post-war period. As a recent NYT analysis showed, thus far the Roberts Court has overturned prior precedents and invalidates federal at a significantly lower rate than its predecessors. Further, many of the Court’s most “activist” decisions, so-defined, have moved the law in a more liberal direction (see, e.g., Boumediene, Kennedy v.Louisiana) or were broadly supported First Amendment decisions (e.g. Stevens). This does not mean the Roberts Court’s decisions are correct and there are exceptions to every rule. Nor does the court’s past conduct necessarily predict the future. It does, however, mean that when one looks at the Court’s overall behavior (and not at a single case) it is inaccurate to say that this Court is particularly “activist” in moving the law in a conservative direction by overturning precedents and invalidating federal laws.

UPDATE: Since some have asked, here is the direct link to the NYT article. Here is the relevant quote: “The Roberts court is finding laws unconstitutional and reversing precedent — two measures of activism — no more often than earlier courts.” The data accompanying the article shows this is an understatement. Specifically, the data show the following:

- The Warren, Burger and Rehnquist Courts overturned precedents at an average rate of 2.7, 2.8 and 2.4 per term, respectively. The Roberts Court, on the other hand, has only overturned an average of 1.6 precedents per term.

- The Warren, Burger, and Rehnquist Courts struck down an average of 7.9, 12.5, and 8.2 laws per term, whereas the Roberts Court has only invalidated an average of 3 laws per term.

The data is through 2010, but adding the past two terms would not change much.