D.J. Tice: Court's liberal wing is rigid

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2012 - 11:12 AM

That's what you could conclude from recent rulings.

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Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan

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It has been quite a closing week for the radical conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court. These would be the "conservative justices" who "long ago shattered the court's standing as a nonpartisan, non-ideological actor in our governing system."

That's how the Washington Post's estimable E.J. Dionne put it only a few days ago, in preparation for this week's long- (and apprehensively) awaited rulings.

Dionne's dark distress nicely summarizes liberal America's almost unanimous opinion of the court's five Republican appointees, who have long routinely been described as inflexible, lockstep "conservative activists" whose decisions are all about politics and ideology, not law.

Here's what the final week brought:

• The court overturned most of Arizona's hard-edged immigration law -- with two of the conservatives joining that opinion.

• The court ruled that states cannot impose mandatory life sentences without parole on juveniles -- with one of the conservatives joining in.

• The court struck down the Stolen Valor Act that outlawed false claims of military heroism -- with two conservatives on board.

• And finally, of course, the court upheld nearly all of Obamacare -- with one conservative justice helping out.

In one final-week opinion -- a reaffirmation, on an appeal from Montana, of 2010's controversial Citizens United ruling upholding the political speech rights of corporations -- the court's conservative wing held together.

But here's the curious thing. In none -- not one -- of these big final-week cases did a single "liberal" justice on the high court (Democratic appointees, all four) stray from the predictable liberal position.

To be sure, all the departures from conservative solidarity this week were perpetrated by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. The rest of the high court's conservatives can, perhaps too often, be counted on.

Earlier this week, outspoken Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a much-discussed scalding dissent in the Arizona case. One now-plausible theory may be that his unseemly anger reflected frustration with the serial disloyalty of Roberts and Kennedy. (Dionne, for his part, called and raised Scalia's intemperance with a column calling for the justice's resignation.)

But if conservative flexibility is limited, all the liberals (at least this week) seem as reliable as sunrise.

I don't happen to agree that either the liberal or conservative justices' reputations for good-faith effort at impartiality and principled legal reasoning deserve to be seen as "shattered."

But if either wing of the court is suspiciously dependable in its tendency to unanimously steer toward a consistent political point of view -- well, does it really seem to be the conservatives?

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D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor.

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