Today is the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore that ended the Florida recount and made George W. Bush president. Jeffrey Toobin, the legal affairs writer for the New Yorker seizes the occasion to take a wrecking ball to the ruling which, he says, turned the traditional notion of judicial conservatism on its head:
“What made the decision in Bush v. Gore so startling was that it was the work of Justices who were considered, to greater or lesser extents, judicial conservatives. On many occasions, these Justices had said that they believed in the preëminence of states’ rights, in a narrow conception of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and, above all, in judicial restraint. Bush v. Gore violated those principles. The Supreme Court stepped into the case even though the Florida Supreme Court had been interpreting Florida law; the majority found a violation of the rights of George W. Bush, a white man, to equal protection when these same Justices were becoming ever more stingy in finding violations of the rights of African-Americans; and the Court stopped the recount even before it was completed, and before the Florida courts had a chance to iron out any problems—a classic example of judicial activism, not judicial restraint, by the majority.”
These are not really new insights, but, as Toobin also notes, the importance of this redefinition has been magnified by what the court’s conservatives — with fresh enthusaism from the addition of Bush-appointed Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito — have done with it.
“The echoes of Bush v. Gore are clearest when it comes to judicial activism. Judicial conservatism was once principally defined as a philosophy of deference to the democratically elected branches of government. But the signature of the Roberts Court has been its willingness, even its eagerness, to overturn the work of legislatures. Brandishing a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, the Court has either struck down or raised questions about virtually every state and local gun-control law in the nation. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided earlier this year, the Court gutted the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law in service of a legal theory that contradicts about a century of law at the Court. (Citizens United removed limits on corporate expenditures in political campaigns; the decision is, at its core, a boon for Republicans, just as Bush v. Gore was a decade ago.) When the Obama health-care plan reaches the high court for review, as it surely will, one can expect a similar lack of humility from the purported conservatives.”
Toobin has been building this case for a while. And I can’t claim to have read every syllable he’s devoted to the Roberts era. But he may have taken his indictment of the court to a new pitch with the close of this piece, especially its final word:
“Many of the issues before the Supreme Court combine law and politics in ways that are impossible to separate. It is, moreover, unreasonable to expect the Justices to operate in a world hermetically cut off from the gritty motives of Democrats and Republicans. But the least we can expect from these men and women is that at politically charged moments—indeed, especially at those times—they apply the same principles that guide them in everyday cases. This, ultimately, is the tragedy of Bush v. Gore. The case didn’t just scar the Court’s record; it damaged the Court’s honor.”