But this year, the four youngest justices separated neatly into the court’s ideological wings and then presented a unified front.
Obama’s choices, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, agreed 94 percent of the time this term, according to statisticians at SCOTUSblog.com. The only pair that agreed more were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., Bush’s picks, who parted ways in only 4 percent of the court’s decisions.
Roberts joined the court in 2005, Alito the next year, Sotomayor in 2009 and Kagan last August — and this term presented opportunities in which the four divided into debate partners.
Alito and Sotomayor brought different lessons from their time as prosecutors and judges as they wrangled over criminal justice issues; he was more likely to cite “public safety,” while she mentioned “dignity” or “common sense.”
And it seemed like the opening act of what will be a very long-running play Monday when Kagan ended her first term with a rare decision to read from the bench a point-by-point rebuttal of Roberts’s opinion that struck down Arizona’s campaign finance law.
If conservatives never doubted Roberts and Alito, the left had questions about Sotomayor’s philosophy and the lack of a paper trail for Kagan, who had not been a judge.
But Sotomayor has voted consistently with liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, and Kagan has written two powerful dissents in cases controlled by the conservative majority. “By now there should be no question that Justice Kagan was ready to be a Supreme Court justice,” said Paul D. Clement, who was solicitor general under Bush.
Washington lawyer Gregory G. Garre, who succeeded Clement in the Bush administration, said that the consistency of the new justices, on the left and the right, “probably shows the greater scrutiny that goes into vetting nominees these days.”
But he and others warned against drawing too many conclusions from a session that lacked standout decisions, such as 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which loosened campaign finance restrictions on corporations and unions and ignited partisan scrutiny of the court.
This term, Garre said, “was the calm after the storm of Citizens United and the calm before the storm of health care,” one of several controversial issues that the justices may consider soon.
It was a term that renewed questions about whether the court’s conservative majority has a corporate bias; perhaps the most notable decision was its ruling that blocked what would have been the nation’s largest class-action lawsuit, filed by female employees of Wal-Mart.