The court’s four-member liberal wing managed to pick off one or more votes from the court’s five conservative justices in case after case.
WASHINGTON — The stunning series of liberal decisions delivered by the Supreme Court this term was the product of discipline on the left side of the court and disarray on the right.
In case after case, including blockbusters on same-sex marriage and President Obama’s health-care law, the court’s four-member liberal wing, all appointed by Democratic presidents, managed to pick off one or more votes from the court’s five conservative justices, all appointed by Republicans.
They did this, in large part, through rigorous bloc voting, making the term that concluded Monday the most liberal one since the Warren court in the late 1960s, according to two political-science measurements of court-voting data.
“The most interesting thing about this term is the acceleration of a long-term trend of disagreement among the Republican-appointed judges, while the Democratic-appointed judges continue to march in lock step,” said Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
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Many analysts credit the leadership of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the senior member of the liberal justices, for leveraging the liberals’ four votes. “We have made a concerted effort to speak with one voice in important cases,” she said last year.
The court’s conservatives, by contrast, were often splintered, issuing separate opinions even when they agreed on the outcome. Those justices, for instance, produced more than 40 dissenting opinions, the liberals just 13.
The divisions on the right, Posner said, may have occurred, in part, because the mix of cases reaching the court has invited a backlash. “Conservative litigators who hope to move the law to the right by bringing cases to the Supreme Court have overreached,” he said. “They are trying to move the law farther right than Kennedy or Roberts think reasonable.”
For example, in King v. Burwell, the case brought by groups hostile to the Affordable Care Act, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberals in rejecting the challenge to health-insurance subsidies provided through federal exchanges. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. dissented.
In addition, Posner said, the conservative justices are airing real jurisprudential disagreements. “Kennedy, Roberts and Alito’s pragmatism contrasts with the formalism of Scalia and Thomas, for example,” he said.
Lee Epstein, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said: “The Republicans can’t seem to agree even when they agree, while the Democrats present a more united front. That may reflect Justice Ginsburg’s leadership skills, but her job isn’t very hard — she and her colleagues on the left are so ideologically close. The chief justice has a much tougher task on the other side.”
David Strauss, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said the cases the court agreed to hear last term might have created a misperception about how liberal it has become. “It’s still a conservative court — just not as conservative as some had hoped and some had feared,” he said.
The term was not uniformly liberal, of course. On Monday alone, the court ruled against death-row inmates in a case on lethal injections and against the Obama administration in a case on environmental regulations.
The Obama administration, though, found an unlikely ally in the court in major cases, said lawyer Pratik Shah. “Not many imagined a few years ago,” Shah said, “that this court, rather than Congress, would become the more effective venue for furthering the administration’s priorities.”
When the administration was on the losing side, it was often because it took a conservative position, particularly in criminal cases, said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor.
“The administration most often lost the court because it couldn’t hold the liberals,” Winkler said. “The administration’s positions in the Supreme Court were too conservative. Shockingly, the Supreme Court may have been more liberal than the Obama administration this term.” This was so, he said, in cases involving drugs, guns, searches and threats posted on Facebook.
When the four liberals — Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — achieved a majority, they were often happy to let others do the talking.
Kennedy, at the ideological center, did his part in moving the court to the left. As usual, he was in the majority in most of the 19 decisions decided by 5-to-4 votes.
Thirteen of those rulings split along the usual lines, with Kennedy joining either the court’s four more liberal members or its four more conservative ones.
In previous terms, he leaned right in such cases about two-thirds of the time. This time around, he voted with the liberals eight times and with the conservatives five.
This term may have been an anomaly, and the next one may shift back to the right. The justices have already agreed to hear cases on affirmative action and the meaning of “one person, one vote,” and they are likely to hear a major abortion case.
Last term, the court issued unanimous decisions in about two-thirds of its case, a modern record. This term, the number dropped to about 40 percent, a little lower than the average in recent terms.
But the court remained united in cases involving religion, issuing unanimous rulings in favor of a Muslim inmate in an Arkansas prison who wanted to grow a beard and an Arizona church that challenged a town ordinance limiting the size of signs announcing services.