How the Right Packed the Court | The Nation


How the Right Packed the Court

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Powell’s memo marks a convenient starting point for the conservative legal movement, but that movement was helped by political mobilization against progressive Court decisions on civil rights, crime and abortion. Southern outrage at the Warren Court’s desegregation rulings turned into a vicious rhetorical campaign against “activist judges,” which became the centerpiece of George Wallace’s 1968 presidential run and was incorporated into Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” that same year. By appealing to the fear and anger generated by judicial desegregation orders and the Warren Court’s long-overdue reforms of the criminal justice system, Wallace and Nixon launched attacks on federal courts that became a cornerstone of Republican success. These attacks intensified after the Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. They ensured a constituency in the Republican Party that cared intensely about appointing federal judges who would narrowly read the Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection, privacy and fairness to the accused.

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William Yeomans
William Yeomans, a fellow in law and government at American University’s Washington College of Law, spent twenty-...

Simultaneously during the 1970s, wealthy conservatives—many inspired by the Powell memo—poured money into right-wing public interest law firms in an effort to replicate the success of progressive public interest organizations. They also pumped money into the development of the “law and economics” movement, a business-friendly effort to evaluate and formulate legal rules based on their economic efficacy.

These separate strains of legal conservatism—the political and the economic—came together after the election of Ronald Reagan, who ran on a pro-corporate platform that echoed Republican attacks on the courts. Reagan installed Edwin Meese as his second attorney general and filled the Justice Department with young conservative lawyers, many of whom grew into conservative judges, such as John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Meese used the Justice Department as a think tank for the conservative legal movement. Its Office of Legal Policy produced ideologically driven work that emphasized a limited view of federal legislative and regulatory authority, revitalization of the takings clause as a defense against regulation, and rejuvenation of the contract clause, which had been used by the Supreme Court to invalidate labor laws in the first third of the twentieth century. The office also urged restrictive access to the courts and questioned the broad federal pre-emption of state law, which often worked against corporate interests.

Finally, the Meese Justice Department, knowing that it had a constituency clamoring for conservative judges, identified conservatives like Scalia and Kennedy for nomination to the Supreme Court, along with youthful Court of Appeals judges plucked from the Justice Department. Reliance on ideology as a dominant consideration in selecting judges represented the fulfillment of Lewis Powell’s vision. It demonstrated the fundamental understanding that the most direct way to change the law was to appoint reliable ideologues to enforce it.

While much of the original conservative political focus emphasized judicial restraint, as conservatives ascended on the Supreme Court, the activist strain promoted by Powell’s memo gained favor. Though many conservative politicians still deploy the rhetoric of opposition against “activist judges” who “legislate from the bench,” few legal conservatives today fault justices (such as the majority in Citizens United) for casting restraint aside when it serves corporate interests.

The final element pushing the Court toward protection of the 1 percent has been the emergence of a specialized Supreme Court bar that has brought disproportionate expertise in Court litigation to the service of corporate interests. Reagan’s first solicitor general, Rex Lee, left his position to start a successful Supreme Court practice with a major corporate firm. Since Lee’s pioneering leap, it has become common for firms specializing in corporate law to establish an exclusive Supreme Court team, often headed and staffed by alumni of the solicitor general’s office, who have formed useful relationships and acquired enormous expertise in their multiple appearances before the Court. They make it much more likely that the Court will agree to hear business cases and that the business side will prevail.

A recent study by Lee Epstein, William Landes and Judge Richard Posner—conservative scholars at Northwestern and the University of Chicago law schools—shows a significant increase in the number of business cases the Roberts Court has agreed to hear. That increase coincides with the findings of a study by Harvard Law School professor Richard Lazarus, which documented that by 2007, a majority of the successful requests to hear a case were filed by experienced Supreme Court practitioners.

The dramatic rise in the corporate success rate before the Roberts Court is the result of powerful forces unleashed and given focus by Powell’s memo as well as by Republican exploitation of the backlash against the Warren Court’s decisions favoring civil rights, criminal defendants and privacy. Recapture of the federal courts will require a commitment by progressives to fund the incubators of progressive ideas, support progressive advocacy and build a farm team for the bench. Most immediately, it will require a progressive movement that will mobilize against the Court’s 1 percent jurisprudence and push the president to select, and the Senate to confirm, judges who reject the Roberts Court’s plutocratic jurisprudence.


Bill Moyers and Bernard A. Weisberger: “The 1 Percent Court
Jamie Raskin: “Citizens United and the Corporate Court
Dahlia Lithwick: “One Nation by and for the Corporations
Michael Greenberger: “The Roberts Court and Wall Street
Craig Becker and Judith Scott: “Isolating America’s Workers
Herman Schwartz: “Rewriting Antitrust Law
Sherrilyn Ifill: “A Court Out of Touch
Nan Aron: “The Way Forward

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