Politics and Constitutional Law: A Distinction without a Difference? | RJ McKeever | British Journal of American Legal Studies

This article examines the relationship between Politics and Law in U.S. Supreme Court decision-making. It argues that three major developments in recent decades have combined to undermine the Court’s status as a legal and judicial institution, and instead define it as political actor, motivated by ideology and the personal policy predilections of the Court’s Justices. The first of these elements is the increasingly political and partisan nature of the Supreme Court appointment process, as witnessed by the recent Gorsuch and Kavanaugh nominations. The behaviour of the President and Senators in these controversial appointments conclusively demonstrates that the country’s leading politicians view the Court as primarily a political body rather than a legal one. The second element of the assault on the Court’s status as a judicial institution is the rise in influence of the behaviouralist school of Supreme Court analysis. Beginning with the work of academics such as Glendon Schubert, the behaviouralists employed new methods and theories in an attempt to debunk the Legal Model of Supreme Court decision-making and to replace it with what is known today as the Attitudinal Model. It forcibly argues that Supreme Court Justices are political in intent and decision, with legal language and arguments being no more than judicial camouflage to disguise their true nature. This applies equally to both conservative and liberal justices. The article identifies the third element of the assault on the status of the Court as a legal institution as coming from Originalist scholars, activists and judges who accuse liberal Justices of having abandoned traditional interpretive methods in favour of redefining the language of the Constitution to suit their progressive political agenda. Originalists acknowledge that their own interpretive methods may lead to results deemed unacceptable to contemporary Americans, but argue that it the duty of the political branches of government, not the courts, to modernise policy and practice. This article concludes that while Originalism has genuine appeal as a theory of interpretation, it is nevertheless both impractical and undesirable. Moreover, rather than returning the Court to the Legal Model, the Originalist campaign has only served to persuade many that the Attitudinal Model is an accurate one. However, the article also argues that the break with Originalism by the Warren Court over segregation has developed into a wholesale change in the Court’s role in American government, one that ill-becomes the unelected judiciary in a representative democracy. It is argued here that the best way to restore the legal and judicial identity of the Court would be a return to the emphasis on ‘judicial role’, once championed by great jurists such as Learned Hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis and John Harlan II. Judicial modesty and restraint would distinguish the Court from the political branches of American government. The Court should decide less and only where the case for a decision of unconstitutionality is very clear and very compelling.

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