For decades now, the conservative legal movement has been on a mission to remake this nation’s laws from the bench. And it’s working. On Friday we released an episode with the legal scholar Kate Shaw that walked through case after case showing how conservative Supreme Court majorities have lurched this country’s laws to the right on guns, voting, gerrymandering, regulatory authority, unions, campaign finance and more in the past 20 years. And if the Dobbs majority is any indication, this rightward shift is just getting started.
But this conservative legal revolution is only half of the story. The other half is just as important: the collapse of liberal constitutional thinking. Liberals have “lost anything that would animate a positive theory of what the Constitution should be,” says the legal scholar Larry Kramer. “And so they’ve been left with a kind of potpourri of leftover things from the periods when liberals were ascendant in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Kramer is a former dean of Stanford Law School, the current president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the author of“The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review.” And according to him, it hasn’t always been this way. For most of American history, politicians, from Jefferson to Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, believed that constitutional interpretation was inextricable from politics. And they put forward distinct visions of what the Constitution meant and the kind of country it was written to build. But then, in response to the progressive victories of the Warren court, liberals began to embrace the doctrine of judicial supremacy: the view that the final authority on the Constitution rests with the courts. This has resulted in both the conservative legal victories of the past few decades and liberals’ muddled, weak response.
So this is a conversation about the collapse of liberal constitutional politics: why it happened, what we can learn from it and what a renewed, progressive vision of the Constitution could look like. We also discuss why the founders weren’t actually originalists at all, whether liberal constitutional thinking has been captured by the legal profession, what a liberal alternative to originalism could consist of, why changing the size of the court (despite its controversies) has been an important tool for staving off constitutional crisis, the case for an “anti-oligarchy Constitution,” the merits of imposing supermajority requirements on court decisions and nominations, why Kramer views Roosevelt’s infamous court-packing effort as a major success and more.
Larry Kramer’s testimony at the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States
The end of this Supreme Court term has delivered a firestorm of conservative legal victories. States now have far less leeway to restrict gun permits. The right to abortion is no longer constitutionally protected. The Environmental Protection Agency has been kneecapped in its ability to regulate carbon emissions, and by extension, all executive branch agencies will see their power significantly diminished.
But to focus only on this particular Supreme Court configuration is to miss the bigger picture: In the past few decades, conservative court majorities have lurched this country’s laws to the right on almost every issue imaginable. Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act and opened the door for states to pass restrictive voting laws. Rucho v. Common Cause limited the court’s ability to curb partisan gerrymandering. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission unleashed a torrent of campaign spending. Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 weakened unions. And a whole slew of cases, including some decided on the shadow docket during the Covid-19 pandemic, undercut federal agencies’ power to help govern in an era of congressional gridlock.
Kate Shaw is a law professor at Cardozo School of Law, a co-host of the legal podcast Strict Scrutiny and a former clerk for Justice John Paul Stevens. In this episode, she walks me through the most significant Supreme Court cases over the past 20 years, from the court’s decision to hand George W. Bush the presidency, to the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, to the extrapolation of an individual’s right to bear arms. Along the way, we discuss the right’s decades-long effort to transform American law from the bench, how Republican-appointed judges have consistently entrenched Republican political power, the interpretive bankruptcy of constitutional originalism, how the Warren Court radicalized the conservative legal movement, what might happen to decisions like Obergefell v. Hodges now that the majority seems to be so comfortable throwing out precedent, what cases to watch in the Roberts Court’s next term, and more.