A Look At This Year's Supreme Court Rulings

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The Supreme Court concluded its term last week. Fewer than 20 percent of cases this term were decided by a 5-4 ruling; about half of them were 9-0. Two of the more controversial opinions issued were on gun rights and campaign finance. Melissa Block talks to attorney Tom Goldstein, who has been analyzing the year's rulings on his popular SCOTUSblog. He says that it is not so simple to see this as a conservative activist court methodically on the march to the right.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the appointment of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. It's widely expected she will be confirmed by the full Senate. So a new configuration of the court next term and a chance now to think back on this term's decisions and what they show about the court under Chief Justice John Roberts.

Attorney Tom Goldstein has argued many cases before the Supreme Court. He's been analyzing the year's rulings on his popular SCOTUSblog, and he's here to talk through what he's found.

Tom, welcome back.

Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Attorney at Law, Akin Gump; Founder and Publisher, SCOTUSblog): Thank you so much.

BLOCK: You say, Tom, that it's not so simple to see this as a conservative activist court methodically on the march to the right. Why not?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, we do have a conservative majority, but they aren't committed to overruling all of the existing law. They made big decisions on campaign finance and gun rights that we know about, but there are a lot of other things that they didn't take dramatic steps in.

BLOCK: You mentioned campaign finance. Well, let's talk about that case. Citizens United, a five-to-four-majority ruling freeing up corporate money in elections - a sweeping ruling. What did it show about the direction of the court and in particular how it views business?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, we know that we have five members of the Supreme Court that are committed to the idea that spending money in electoral campaigns is free speech. That's true for corporations. It's also true for labor unions, for example. And so campaign finance reformers are in trouble.

I don't think the Supreme Court is committed to the business side of cases. There were a lot of big cases that the business community lost this term, for example.

BLOCK: It also did - that ruling also did lead to the rare event of the president criticizing the court's ruling in his State of the Union address the next week.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, I think the administration - the president sees some value in being able to run against the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, unelected, very easy to caricature as being activists on either the liberal or the conservative side. And because it does have several decisions that have favored business in the past, you can kind of come at it and say we're populist. The court is for companies.

BLOCK: This was also a court that at the end of its term ruled in a gun rights case expanding the rights of gun owners. How do you read that ruling?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, over two decisions in three years, the Supreme Court has radically changed the law when it comes to gun rights, but we don't know what its ultimate consequence will be.

The Supreme Court has said there is a right to bear arms. It applies to state and federal gun regulations, but we're not going to tell you just yet what it means. So we don't know about registration requirements, licensing requirements, rules about having guns in the workplace. That's going to come over the next five or 10 years with a lot more lawsuits.

BLOCK: You could look at the ruling by this court, the ruling that banned life without parole for juvenile offenders and say that's a liberal vote. Do you think that's the case?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: It's an excellent counterexample of how Justice Kennedy, who's in the ideological center of the court, sometimes joins with the left. So there have been a series of decisions limiting who can be put to death, for example, and then there was the juvenile life without parole case.

And then in still other cases, we got mixed up jumbles of justices. We had Sonia Sotomayor coming onto the court. You note Elena Kagan is almost certainly coming. When the court's membership changes, the usual patterns and alignments get mixed up, too, which is probably a good thing. We don't want to think about our Supreme Court as just a hard-right and a hard-left place.

BLOCK: Thinking about those alignments, where do you place the role of Chief Justice John Roberts? He voted in the majority 92 percent of time this past term. Is he consolidating his hold, gearing toward consensus, getting majorities on his side?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Well, in just a few years, he has established himself as the court's clear leader, and he's done it by not always being on the ideological right, which some people caricature him as.

For example, in the juvenile life without parole case, he was on the more liberal side of the case. He has really done a lot, however, to move the court in a fairly steady conservative direction. Each year, there are a couple of significant decisions, but he seems concerned about not creating the image of the court as ideologically hard right.

BLOCK: Tom Goldstein is the founder of SCOTUSblog. He's also an attorney with Akin Gump here in Washington. Tom, thanks for coming in.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Oh, it's such a pleasure.

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