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Friday, March 07, 2014

Supreme Court Unanimity, T'other Way Around

At CoOp, Gerard Magliocca has an interesting "thought experiment"--I would call it a "question"--about Supreme Court unanimity. He asks: "Can anyone think of a Supreme Court opinion that failed because it was not unanimous?  In other words, is there any opinion that was gravely undermined by the fact that one or two Justices dissented?" The discussion is good. (For the record, like at least one other commenter I would have offered Gobitis as an example as well.) But I think the question or its suppositions may get things the wrong way around. Supreme Court opinions don't fail because they're not unanimous; they're not unanimous because they (are about to) fail. 

Not always, of course. Really, this question and/or situation is most relevant where the Court is confronted with a politically and socially charged issue that is in the middle of the journey from being uncontested on one side of an issue to being uncontested on the opposite side of the issue. (The best discussion I know of on this is Larry Lessig's earlier con law theory work.) Unanimity at the first end will not rescue an opinion from being overruled when the social and legal consensus has reached uncontestability on the other end. But a lack of unanimity on the Court in the middle period, the stage in which some issue or value is in a period of contestation, is a sympom or indication of that state of contestability. The consensus may resolidify around the earlier view of what is uncontestable. Who knows; maybe the Court's opinion, divided though it may be, will contribute to this resolidification, although I rather doubt it. Other times, the consensus will end up forming at the opposite end of the issue. (And perhaps the Court will help here too, although again I am skeptical.)

We won't know where we stand until there has been some kind of new equilibrium reached. But if and when it is reached, and if the social consensus has formed around a new view of what is uncontestable, then we can look back to that divided (and later reversed or dead-ened) opinion as an indication that the Court took on the issue, not so much too early (although we might conclude that it did), but too early to be in a position to settle the issue, or appear to settle it, with any finality. Until that social consensus has arrived, courts will engage in lots of issue avoidance and other exercises of the passive virtues. On some occasions, they will nevertheless reach a substantive decision on one side of the issue or the other. But as long as that issue is still socially contested, there is little reason to think any court decision will be the final word on the subject.

The comments to Gerard's post offer some possible examples and illustrations. I'm not sure all of them work with the little pattern I've offered above. Some certainly do. Others indicate, in line with Michael Klarman's work, that sometimes the state of contestability on an issue can be in one place for the Court and other national elites and elsewhere with respect to public opinion. Brown's unanimity made an important statement about the state of contestation around issues of segregation on the Court and in similar circles, but did not necessarily indicate the same stage of uncontestability in the South. Bowers, Lawrence, the SSM cases, and the contraceptive mandate cases can all be viewed in light of the fact that we are in a period of active contestation on issues of gay rights. And so on.

Nothing terribly novel here. Just food for thought, picking up on the discussion in the comments to Gerard's post.     

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 7, 2014 at 09:54 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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