The Supreme Court Isn't All About Politics

Reporter Marcia Coyle explains how recent rulings show the justices aren't as polarized as they seem.

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The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, surprised the country last year by upholding the Affordable Care Act. In "The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution," National Law Journal chief Washington correspondent Marcia Coyle takes readers behind the scenes of that ruling and other constitutional challenges, including campaign finance, guns and affirmative action. Coyle recently spoke with U.S. News about the court's decisions, why the court isn't actually as polarized as it may seem and how cases on this year's docket will define the Roberts court's legacy. Excerpts:

How do ideological fault lines affect the court's decisions?

In the book I focus on the 5-4 cases, not because I want to show the court is always ideologically divided, but [because] we learn the most when the fault lines emerge. We learn the most about how each justice approaches interpreting the Constitution or interpreting statutes.

Has the Supreme Court become too politicized?

I think we have to realize for the first time in a very, very long time we have a court in which there are five Republican-appointed justices and four Democratic-appointed justices, and we'd be naive if we didn't think they were appointed because they have ideologies sympathetic to the president that appointed them. But as far as actually sitting down and saying, well, I'm going to rule this way because I'm a Republican and I want to help Republicans, I don't believe that's the way they do it.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

So, do you think it is truly possible for the justices to set aside their political beliefs?

I think that each justice is really the sum total of their experiences in life and in law, and they bring those experiences to bear on the cases that they have to decide. And they can check their personal biases at the door because there are certain doctrines that restrain them, like respect for precedents or deferring to elected officials that are close to, and accountable to, the public.

What's the most important decision the Roberts court has delivered?

The health care ruling has been the most important decision. The court did some things in the health care decision: It articulated limits on Congress's power to make laws under the Commerce Clause, and it also opened the door to challenges to Congress's actions under the Spending Clause. That's going to be considered part of the Roberts court legacy.

Was the health care law decision surprising?

It was pretty evident during the oral arguments that [Chief Justice Roberts] and the more conservative members of the court just didn't like this law, so to have him save it under the tax-and-spend power was really a huge surprise.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

Is it common for so many landmark cases to be decided by a vote of 5-4?

When you have a court that is ideologically divided like this court is, it's not surprising if they involve very contentious controversial issues. And these were issues, the four cases that I focused on, that really do represent the struggle within the court over the meaning of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has a couple of big cases in front of it right now, like the gay marriage cases.

Do you think there will be any surprises in the upcoming decisions?

I am sometimes surprised by this court, and what I hope the book shows is that it's not always left versus right. Within what we call the conservative wing and the liberal wing, there are differences even among the justices in those wings. On gay marriage, there are so many options the court has. My only sense after the oral arguments in that case was that the court didn't seem prepared to announce a broad constitutional ruling that there is a right to marriage for same-sex couples. I think we're going to learn an awful lot about the Roberts court by the end of this term.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

What role will future presidential appointments have on the court?