Commentary Magazine


SCOTUS Roulette: Why Winning Matters

In recent years discourse between various wings of the Republican Party has descended into a fight between people who largely view each other as stereotypes rather than allies. Given the stakes involved, the antagonism between Tea Party activists on the one hand and the so-called establishment on the other is understandable and disagreements about tactics are inevitable. These disputes are rooted in part in philosophical differences that are driven in no small measure by the despair that some on the right feel about the future of the nation that seems to mandate that the normal give and take of politics should be superseded by an apocalyptic crusade in which all but true believers must be wiped out. When establishment types attempt to answer such demands with pragmatic sermons about the need to temper absolutism by remembering that the prime objective is to win general elections rather than to conduct ideological purity tests, they are dismissed as temporizing trimmers.

But yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Michigan affirmative action case should act as a reminder to even the most hard-core conservatives that not winning elections could have far more catastrophic consequences for the nation than the indignity of making common cause with the GOP establishment. While conservatives were somewhat satisfied with the failure of yet another liberal attempt to defend racial quotas, the refusal of three of the conservative majority on the court to address the core issue points out just how close liberals are to remaking America should they be able to appoint another two or three justices over the course of the next decade. Conservative commentators were united in their contempt for what several called the “Orwellian” reasoning of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the case that was lionized in both a New York Times news article and an editorial on the case. But unless Republicans nominate someone in 2016 that can beat Hillary Clinton, Sotomayor may firmly be in the majority by the time the former first lady finishes her second term 11 years from now.

As both our Peter Wehner wrote here and John Podhoretz also noted in the New York Post today, the result of yesterday’s decision was largely positive. The court upheld the right of Michigan’s voters to ban the use of so-called affirmative action in admissions in public universities by a 6-2 vote with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself from the case. Both Peter and John rightly lauded the concurring opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia (joined by Justice Clarence Thomas) that would have ruled all racial quotas unconstitutional. By pointing out that the plurality opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy (and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito) did not go far enough in striking down the efforts of the federal appeals courts to deem the referendum on affirmative action an act of prejudice, Scalia went to the heart of the matter.

As National Review noted in a cogent editorial, it was more like “half a win” than something to celebrate. So long as three-fifths of the conservative members of the court are afraid to act on the logic of Chief Justice Roberts’ apt statement in an earlier case that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” and ban such discrimination outright, such efforts will continue to undermine both the Constitution and serve to feed racial discord.

But in addition to lauding Scalia’s brilliant logic, the opinion of Sotomayor merits our attention. The willingness of Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who concurred with her dissent, to embrace a radical stance that would trash the constitutional protections of equal protection in order to enshrine what would amount to permanent racial quotas so as to redress past acts of discrimination is alarming in its own right. But conservatives who think making common cause with less ideological Republicans is counter-productive should ponder what would happen if the next president gets the chance to replace any of the five conservatives on the court with justices who might embrace Sotomayor’s opinions.

At the moment, the justice most likely to be replaced is Ginsburg who is 81 and not in the best of health. Some on the left are calling for her to resign now while President Obama can replace her with a fellow liberal rather than taking the chance that a Republican successor would be presented with the choice. But whether or not Ginsburg sticks to her guns and stays at the court until she has to be carried out, Republicans also need to consider that if a Democrat is sworn in by Roberts in January 2017, that would raise the very real possibility that it is one or more of the justices they count on to preserve an admittedly weak and inconsistent conservative majority that would be swapped out for a leftist like Sotomayor.

At the moment, three of the conservatives (Roberts, 59; Alito, 64; and Thomas, 65) seem young enough to wait out even two more terms of a Democratic president after Obama. But are even Tea Partiers willing to bet the Constitution on the health of the 78-year-old Scalia or even the weathervane 77-year-old Kennedy holding out until 2025?

Winning elections is not the only purpose of politics. Ideology matters and Republican politicians must be held accountable for behavior that undermines the basic principles of limited government. But unless they want to wake up in an America in which the Sotomayors can twist the Constitution into a pretzel to preserve every variety of liberal legal atrocity, right-wingers need to get over their hostility to more moderate Republicans and work to build an electoral majority rather than a purist schismatic faction.

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