Opinion | John Roberts Has Lost Control of the Supreme Court – The New York Times
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Professor Vladeck teaches courses on the federal courts and constitutional law at the University of Texas School of Law. He also co-hosts a podcast on national security law.
Last week the Supreme Court, by a 5-to-4 vote, put back into effect a Trump administration regulation that limited the ability of states to block projects that could pollute rivers and streams. The unsigned, unexplained order in Louisiana v. American Rivers came as part of a highly technical dispute over the scope of the Clean Water Act — and leaves for another day whether the regulation is a valid interpretation of that Nixon-era statute.
But the temporary decision cannot be ignored, especially because of the brief but blistering dissenting opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan. It’s not the first time that liberal justices have called out most of the court’s conservative justices for their increasingly frequent use of the so-called shadow docket — unsigned, unexplained orders like the one last week. But it was significant for being the first time that Chief Justice John Roberts joined her (and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor) in doing so.
With the striking public stance, the chief justice illustrated how concerns about the procedural shortcuts the other conservative justices are taking do (and should) cross ideological divides. He also made clear what many have long suspected: The Roberts court is over.
The term “shadow docket” was introduced by the University of Chicago law professor Will Baude in 2015 to describe the more obscure part of the Supreme Court’s work — the thousands of unsigned and usually unexplained orders that the justices issue each year to manage their docket. Those orders are in contrast to the merits docket, the 60 to 70 cases each year that go through rounds of briefing and oral argument before being resolved in long, signed opinions for the court.
Owing to its inscrutability, the shadow docket has historically received much less public attention or scrutiny. Most shadow docket orders are anodyne — matters as routine as refusing to take up an appeal or giving a party more time to file a brief.
But far more than ever before, the court is using procedural orders on applications for emergency relief while appeals work their way through the courts to resolve disputes affecting the lives of millions of Americans — whether in blocking a rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on a vaccination mandate for large employers, refusing to block Texas’ ban on most abortions after six weeks or putting back into effect congressional district maps that two Alabama lower courts struck down as violating the Voting Rights Act.
Time and again, the justices are ordering lower courts to treat these decisions as precedents — even when, as in last week’s ruling, the order includes no analysis to apply to other cases, which often makes the precedent difficult for lower courts to apply.
Unsurprisingly, these rulings have provoked increasingly strident dissents from the court’s liberal justices. Last September, when the justices refused, by a 5-to-4 vote, to halt the patently unconstitutional Texas abortion law, Justice Kagan criticized the majority not just for the substance of its ruling but also for what that ruling said about the shadow docket. She wrote, “The majority’s decision is emblematic of too much of this court’s shadow-docket decision making — which every day becomes more unreasoned, inconsistent and impossible to defend.”
Last week, by freezing a district court injunction despite a lack of evidence that it was harming the complaining states, the majority once again defied the requirements for the very emergency relief they granted. Justice Kagan wrote that that renders the court’s “emergency docket not for emergencies at all” but rather “only another place for merits determinations — except made without full briefing and argument.” In other words, the principal justification for shadow docket orders — the need to intervene early in litigation to prevent a party from suffering irreversible harm while the appeal unfolded — was nowhere to be found.
Chief Justice Roberts voted with Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan in dissenting from six previous shadow docket rulings. But the Clean Water Act dispute was the first time he joined in the procedural criticism that the other conservatives were not just using the shadow docket but abusing it. In that respect, his rebuke cannot be dismissed as partisan. By publicly endorsing the charge that the conservative justices are short-circuiting ordinary procedures to reach their desired results without sufficient explanation, Chief Justice Roberts provided a powerful counter to defenders of the court’s behavior. Justice Samuel Alito, for instance, claimed in a September 2021 speech that critics of these rulings are acting in bad faith because their real objections are to the results in these cases.
What is especially telling about Chief Justice Roberts’s dissents in these shadow docket cases is that, unlike Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, he’s often been sympathetic to the results. In February’s Alabama redistricting ruling, for instance, Chief Justice Roberts agreed that the court should reconsider the interpretation of the Voting Rights Act under which Alabama’s maps had been struck down; he just believed that any change in that interpretation had to come through the merits docket, not the shadow docket.
At least on the shadow docket, though that’s no longer up to him. Instead, the court’s destiny increasingly appears to be controlled by Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. She implored an audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library just last week to “read the opinion” before jumping to any conclusions about whether the justices are acting more like politicians than judges. Two days later, she joined the majority’s unsigned, unexplained order in the Clean Water Act case, in which there was no opinion to read. Justice Kavanaugh, too, seems more troubled by criticism of the court’s behavior than by the behavior itself, going out of his way in February’s Alabama redistricting cases to criticize the “catchy but worn-out rhetoric about the ‘shadow docket’” in Justice Kagan’s dissent.
It’s not the rhetoric that is wearing out, though; it’s the court’s credibility. The justices have long insisted — as Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter put it in 1992 — that “the court’s legitimacy depends on making legally principled decisions under circumstances in which their principled character is sufficiently plausible to be accepted by the nation.” The proliferation of principle-free decisions affecting more and more Americans — and with a clear, troubling tendency of favoring Republicans over Democrats — calls that legitimacy into increasingly serious question.
It’s understandable, then, why Chief Justice Roberts would finally speak out. No one better understands the stakes for the court’s credibility — and institutional viability. If even his objections can’t persuade the other conservatives to stop abusing the shadow docket, then that may signal the willingness of the court’s conservative majority to go even further in the future and to use the shadow docket to resolve even more significant and contentious constitutional questions.
Stephen I. Vladeck (@steve_vladeck), a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, specializes in the federal courts and constitutional law. He is also a co-host of “The National Security Law Podcast.” He is writing a book on the shadow docket.
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