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Standing at the Crossroads: The Roberts Court in Historical Perspective


Maxwell L. Stearns


University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law


Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 83, No. 3, 2008
U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2007-41

Abstract:     
After eleven years, the longest period in Supreme Court history with no change in membership, the Roberts Court commenced in the year 2005 with two new justices. John Roberts replaced William Rehnquist as the seventeenth Chief Justice and Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O'Connor as Associate Justice. The conventional wisdom suggests that on the nine-justice Supreme Court, these two appointments have produced a single-increment move, ideologically, to the right. The two Chief Justices occupy roughly the same ideological position. In contrast, whereas O'Connor was generally viewed as occupying the Court's centrist, or median, position, Alito has instead continued to embrace the same conservative judicial philosophy that characterized his fifteen-year career on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

It now appears that the Roberts Court is one justice shy of what conservatives had long hoped for, namely a core conservative majority that would ensure predictable rulings in key areas of constitutional law, including most notably abortion, equal protection, and criminal procedure. This Article will explain that while this conventional wisdom is generally sound, it is also incomplete in a critical respect.

The increasingly prominent conservative center of gravity in the Supreme Court coincides with an overwhelmingly conservative set of federal circuit courts of appeals. This uncommon judicial occurrence becomes all the more significant when we factor in one more consideration. The Supreme Court has proved most willing to alter its standing doctrines, which govern access to the federal judiciary and ultimately to the Court itself, when this combination coincides with a set of standing rules that threaten to undermines the Court's ability, working in alignment with the lower federal judiciary, to further its emerging doctrinal mandate. This even rarer combination has happened only one prior time in the post New Deal period, and that was during the Warren Court.

This Article's thesis is ironic: With respect to standing doctrine, which affects the timing of doctrinal transformation, the Roberts Court is most likely to resemble the Warren Court, the very Court whose historical legacy it seeks to counteract. Further core conservative appointments to the Roberts Court will place stress upon strict standing doctrines developed in the Burger and Rehnquist Courts, as the Supreme Court, working in alignment with the conservative lower federal judiciary, seeks to move substantive constitutional doctrine in its preferred ideological direction. Over time, an increasingly conservative Roberts Court will seek to relax the strictest features of standing doctrine to facilitate its broader doctrinal agenda.

To support this thesis, this Article develops and presents two new sets of data. Adapting the Martin-Quinn scoring system, the first data set tracks the ideological center of gravity and the stability of dominant coalition structures on the Supreme Court itself from 1937 through 2005. The second data set is the product of original research drawn from the Federal Judges Biographical Database, compiled by the Federal Judicial Center. These data track the ideological balance of the federal circuit courts, for each year from 1933 through 2006 based upon the party of appointing President. This Article transforms these two sets of data into a readily comparable form and presents them together in a chronological table covering the Supreme Court and circuit courts from 1933 through 2006.

This Article relies upon these data to explain the conditions under which the Supreme Court has historically developed and transformed its principal doctrinal gatekeeper, namely standing, in an effort to control developing constitutional doctrine in concert with the lower federal courts. The Article then places the Roberts Court in a broader theoretical and empirical perspective that tracks the Court's internal coalition structures and accounts for the historical relationship between ideological dominance on the Supreme Court and the majority of the federal circuit courts. The analysis helps not only in assessing the significance of the Roberts and Alito appointments, but also of potential future appointments in affecting doctrinal change.

The Supreme Court's standing rules have long been viewed as a conservative set of doctrines. The Court's most recent, and controversial, standing pronouncement, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency ('EPA'), which over the dissents of the four core conservatives, afforded standing to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to challenge the EPA's denial of rulemaking respecting the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, is consistent with casting standing in such ideological terms. A longer historical view, however, belies the claim that strict standing inevitably serves conservative interests. Since the doctrine's inception in the New Deal, the Supreme Court has willingly modified standing to fit its changing circumstances and in doing so, has also changed the doctrine's ideological cast. This Article provides theoretical and empirical support for the thesis that as the Roberts Court moves further in a conservative direction, it will be poised once more to modify the strict form of standing that characterized that doctrine in the Burger and Rehnquist Courts as a means working with the aligned conservative lower federal judiciary to move doctrine in its preferred ideological direction.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 91

Keywords: Roberts Court, Supreme Court, federal judiciary, Standing, Social Choice

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Date posted: November 7, 2007 ; Last revised: September 17, 2008

Suggested Citation

Stearns, Maxwell L., Standing at the Crossroads: The Roberts Court in Historical Perspective. Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 83, No. 3, 2008; U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2007-41. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1028261

Contact Information

Maxwell L. Stearns (Contact Author)
University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )
500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States
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