It was the summer of 2005. George W. Bush had been reelected president the autumn before. He possessed political capital, he exulted, and intended to use it. His inaugural address implicitly defended his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and, without mentioning his embrace of NATO expansion, went further still: “[I]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
A popular uprising in Lebanon soon boiled over, was dubbed “the Cedar Revolution,” Syria agreed to end its thirty-year occupation of southern portion of the country, and Newsweek asked, on its cover, “Was Bush Right?”
But the war in Iraq remained bogged down. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to replace Vice President Dick Cheney as Bush’s closest foreign policy adviser. The president’s major domestic initiative, a plan to privatize the Social Security system, on which Bush had campaigned since 1978, was abandoned. And in August, Hurricane Katrina flooded and flattened New Orleans.
Bush focused on the Supreme Court.
Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement a few months before. Eager to nominate the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court associate justice, Bush’s first choice was his friend and former White House counsel, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Objections to his candidacy were raised, pro-life conservatives in particular. So in July Bush nominated appellate court judge John Roberts instead.
Within weeks, Chief Justice William Rehnquist died, after a lengthy battle with throat cancer. Bush re-nominated Roberts to replace the Chief, and to replace O’Connor, he nominated another old friend, Harriet Miers, a corporate lawyer from Dallas, who had replaced Gonzalez as White House Counsel. She was widely criticized for lack of judicial experience.
So, despite his determination to nominate a woman, Bush chose Samuel Alito instead.
Barack Obama defeated John McCain in 2008. The next April, Justice David Souter announced his retirement. Obama nominated appellate court judge Sonia Sotomayor, who was confirmed in August. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens retired the year after that, and though Obama was offered bipartisan support for candidacy of Federal prosecutor Merrick Garland, he nominated former Solicitor General Elena Kagan instead.
When Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in February 2016, Obama finally sent Garland’s name to the Senate, but even with seven months remaining before the November election, it was too late. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) refused to act on the nomination, and when Donald Trump was elected, it expired. During his term, Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to replace Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. and Anthony Kennedy. McConnell got all three confirmed by the Senate.
It is not easy to pack the Supreme Court, but, working diligently, over a period of fifty years, a coalition of conservative lawyers, evangelical Christians, and Catholic activists, had finally succeeded.
I was reminded of all this when I took down from the shelf The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: the Battle for the Control of the Law (Princeton, 2008), by Steven Teles, of Johns Hopkins University. Of particular salience was the early chapter on “The Rise of the Liberal Legal Network,” in which Teles describes as the conjunction of the Warren Court and the development of an extensive supportive structure in law schools during the Rights Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.
After that, this splendid book describes nearly everything you need to understand about the counter-mobilization that developed in the 1970s and 1980s: the advent of conservative public interest law in the early 1970s (and the early mistakes from which its institutions learned); the origins of the law and economics movement and its institutionalization by Henry Manne; the counter-networking since 1982 of the Federalist Society. There is a lot of history to imbibe in order to understand how the movement .achieved its most cherish goal last week
On the other hand, if you want a glimpse of where the intermingling of law and economics is headed, read Republic of Beliefs: A New Approach to Law and Economics (Princeton, 2018), by Kaushik Basu, of Cornell University. Basu is a development economist, former chief economist of the World Bank (as were Paul Romer, Joseph Stiglitz, and Anne Krueger), and, like them, a theorist; in his case, a student and collaborator of Amartya Sen and Anthony Atkinson. Basu expects focal points, a concept derived from game theory to play a central role in rethinking the relationship between economics and law. (Better, perhaps, to call it the study of interactive decision-making.)
What’s a focal point? You know one when you see one: shared manifestations of a psychological capacity, prevalent among humans, especially those who share common cultural backgrounds, which enables individuals to guess what others are likely to do, when faced with the problem of choosing from one among several possible options. A classic example? The decision whether to drive on the left or the right side of the road.
But that’s story for another day; a project for the next fifty years.
Meanwhile, if you are simply looking for the damaged but still-healthy roots of the mainstream Republican Party, the place to start is with Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion, dissenting from the “relentless freedom from doubt” displayed by his colleagues in their majority findings last week:
The Court’s decision to overrule Roe and Casey is a serious jolt to the legal system – regardless of how you view those cases. A narrower decision rejecting the misguided viability line would be markedly less unsettling, and nothing more is needed to decide this case.
George W. Bush’s original two preferences for the high court– Gonzales and Miers – surely would have concurred, had they been nominated and confirmed as associate justices. Roberts, it seems to me, had become the de facto leader of the Republican Party, US Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) its floor leader in Congress. If you want to know what will happen next, bide your time until autumn and carefully sift through the mid-term election results. Then fasten your seat belts for 2024.