By Scott Lemieux
Some court observers who might generally be considered allies of President Obama have expressed concerns about the solicitude for executive power shown by Obama's second Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. There is at least some evidence for claims that, while Kagan is unlikely to support the strongest claims of executive power advanced by the Bush administration, she is likely to give a much wider berth to the executive branch than many liberals and libertarians would prefer.
Beyond Kagan's (very thin) record of views on the subject, there is a more general reason for suspecting that Kagan might disappoint some supporters of the President on executive power. The punchline to the article I discussed in my last post is that the intersection of law and politics can be expected to lead to judges who are deferential to claims of executive power, especially during wartime. According to Graber, from a standpoint of judicial behavior, the process might be expected to look like this:
- "Judge Strategy," whose overriding concern is insulating the Supreme Court from political pressures than might undermine judicial power in the long run, can be expected to favor executive power in most circumstances. There are some exceptions -- as two landmark Supreme Court opinions have demonstrated, when the president and/or the war the president supports are relatively unpopular, the Supreme Court has shown some willingness to constrain the power of the executive branch. Still, there is generally a "rally effect" on public opinion during times of war, and as result strategically-minded judges are likely to tread with extreme caution in evaluating claims of executive power during wartime.
- "Judge Attitude," who decides cases based on her policy preferences. In theory, this judge would favor controversial claims of executive power half the time, but as Graber notes in practice "attitudinal" judges are likely to favor executive assertions of power much more frequently. The president, after all, does the nominating, and is likely to "screen" for justices who will be sympathetic to future assertions of executive power. The effect is likely to be heightened during wartime, or during "reconstructive" administrations in which the president is trying to expand his political authority.
- As a result, as precedents build, "Judge Legal" -- who prefers not to innovate and is likely to follow precedents unless they clash with very strongly held preferences -- is also likely to support assertions executive power. A majority of relevant precedents will compel deference to judicial power, and even cases in which the Supreme Court rejects particular claims of executive power generally leave significant leeway for future courts to approve different assertions.