In today’s New York Times, former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal discusses the almost-unprecedented degree of consensus on the Supreme Court this term. As I noted here and previewed here), this is the first term in a decade in which the Court will have been unanimous in the judgment in a majority of argued cases. Indeed, no matter how divided the Court’s last two decisions are, the Court will have been unanimous in the judgment in approximately two-thirds of its decisions. As Katyal notes, this has not happened since 1940.
The justices’ ability to cross partisan divides and find common ground in their bottom-line judgment in roughly two-thirds of their cases — including the two decisions handed down Thursday, restricting the president’s ability to issue recess appointments during brief breaks in the Senate’s work, and striking down a Massachusetts ban on protests near abortion clinics — should remind us that even in this hyperpartisan age, there is a difference between law and politics.
Unanimity is important because it signals that the justices can rise above their differences and interpret the law without partisanship. The best illustration of this in the modern era is Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court unanimously declared racial segregation in education to be unconstitutional. When the justices forge common ground, it signals to the nation the deep-seated roots of what the court has said and contributes to stability in the fabric of the law. . . .
Unanimity, of course, would mean little if it were reserved only for minor things. But the court was unanimous this term in cases that posed big central questions, like whether the government could search your cellphone without a warrant, whether software could be patented, whether the rules for class-action securities lawsuits should change, and many others. Those cases were not easy ones. In the cellphone case, the government made forceful points about the ways in which those searches were permissible, and indeed necessary, for law enforcement. The software industry and its foes argued vociferously about whether software patents were destroying the economy or creating it. And so on. What’s more, the court wasn’t unanimous because the justices sat on their hands; to the contrary, they reversed the lower court 74 percent of the time this year.
Some have downplayed the significance of this year’s consensus on the Court, noting that the Court remains divided on hot-button issues like abortion and affirmative action, as well as important matters of business law like the standards for class action suits and the enforceability of arbitration clauses. But this has been true for years — including during the Rehnquist Court, when a higher percentage of the Court’s decisions were decided by a single vote.
One cannot explain away the increase in consensus by pointing to the Court’s docket. This past term’s lineup of cases did not include an appreciable dip in the percentage of difficult or ideologically charged issues. Indeed, as the Court’s docket has shrunk over the past 30 years, one would expect the divisiveness to increase as difficult and heated questions make up a higher percentage of the cases the Court hears. This is particularly so because the Court rarely agrees to hear cases anymore unless lower courts are split, meaning lower court judges have disagreed on the proper outcome. Whatever the cause, the increase in unanimity is a notable development — and will be even more so should it continue.
A final note. I couldn’t help at chuckle at Katyal’s byline, which notes he argued four cases before the Supreme Court this term, three of which were decided unanimously.