March 23, 2008

BUBBA'S CONSERVATIVE LEGACY:

Supreme Court Inc. (JEFFREY ROSEN, 3/16/08, NY Times Magazine)

After the election of Bill Clinton, for example, the chamber endorsed Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in addition to her pioneering achievements as the head of the women’s rights project at the A.C.L.U. had specialized, as a law professor, in the procedural rules in complex civil cases and was comfortable with the finer points of business litigation. The chamber was especially enthusiastic about Clinton’s second nominee, Stephen Breyer, who made his name building a bipartisan consensus for airline deregulation as a special counsel on the judiciary committee; and who, as a Harvard Law professor, advocated an influential and moderate view on antitrust enforcement.

During Breyer’s confirmation hearings his sharpest critic was Ralph Nader, who testified that his pro-business rulings were “extraordinarily one-sided.” Another critic, Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, said that the fact that the chamber was the first organization to endorse Breyer indicated that “large corporations are very pleased with this nomination” and “the fact that Ralph Nader is opposed to it indicated that the average American has a reason to have some concern.” The chamber’s imprimatur helped reassure Republicans about Breyer, and he was confirmed with a vote of 87 to 9. “Frankly, we didn’t feel like we had anyone on the court since Justice Powell who truly understood business issues,” Conrad told me. “Justice Breyer came close to that.”

The Breyer and Ginsburg nominations also came at a time when liberal as well as conservative judges and academics were gravitating in increasing numbers to an economic approach to the law, originally developed at the University of Chicago. The law-and-economics movement sought to evaluate the efficiency of legal rules based on their costs and benefits for society as a whole. Although originally conservative in its orientation, the movement also attracted prominent moderate and liberal scholars and judges like Breyer, who before his nomination wrote two books on regulation, arguing that government health-and-safety spending is distorted by sensational media reports of disasters that affect relatively few citizens.

Since joining the Supreme Court, Breyer has also been an intellectual leader in antitrust and patent disputes, which often pit business against business, rather than business against consumers. In those cases, many liberal scholars sympathetic to economic analysis have applauded the court for favoring competition rather than existing competitors, innovation rather than particular innovators. “The court deserves credit for trying to rationalize a totally irrational patent system, benefiting smaller new competitors rather than existing big ones,” says Lawrence Lessig, an intellectual-property scholar at Stanford.

Clinton’s nominations of Ginsburg and Breyer may have been welcomed by the chamber, but with the election of George W. Bush, the chamber faced a dilemma. Ever since the Reagan administration, there had been a divide on the right wing of the court between pragmatic free-market conservatives, who tended to favor business interests, and ideological states-rights conservatives. In some business cases, these two strands of conservatism diverged, leading the most staunch states-rights conservatives on the court, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, to rule against business interests. Scalia and Thomas were reluctant to second-guess large punitive-damage verdicts by state juries, for example, or to hold that federally regulated cigarette manufacturers could not be sued in state court. As a result, under Conrad’s leadership, the chamber began a vigorous campaign to urge the Bush administration to appoint pro-business conservatives.

When it came time to replace Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the candidate most enthusiastically supported by states-rights conservatives, Judge Michael Luttig, had a record on the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that some corporate interests feared might make him unpredictable in business cases. (“One of my constant refrains is that being conservative doesn’t necessarily mean being pro-business,” Conrad told me.) The chamber and other business groups enthusiastically supported John Roberts, who had been hired by the chamber to write briefs in two Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2002. At the time of Roberts’s nomination, Thomas Goldstein, a prominent Supreme Court litigator, described him as “the go-to lawyer for the business community,” adding “of all the candidates, he is the one they knew best.” When Roberts was nominated, business groups lobbied senators as part of the campaign for his confirmation.

The business community was also enthusiastic about Samuel Alito, whose 15-year record as an appellate judge showed a consistent skepticism of claims against large corporations. Ted Frank of the American Enterprise Institute predicted at the time of the nomination that if Alito replaced O’Connor, he and Roberts would bring about a rise in business cases before the Supreme Court. Frank’s prediction was soon vindicated.

“There wasn’t a great deal of interest in classic business cases in the last few years of the Rehnquist Court,” Carter Phillips, a partner at Sidley Austin and a leading Supreme Court business advocate, told me. In 2004, Judge Richard Posner, a founder of the law-and-economics movement, argued that the Rehnquist Court’s emphasis on headline-grabbing constitutional cases had politicized it, and called on the court to hear more business cases. The Roberts court has unambiguously answered the call. As Phillips told me, Roberts “is more interested in those issues and understands them better than his predecessor did.”


From a historical perspective it won't be possible to differentiate Bill Clinton from the Republican presidents before and after.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 23, 2008 5:08 PM
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