As we wrap up our blog for this academic year and many of us who teach constitutional law turn our attention to our summer research agendas, I again write to bring judicial politics back to constitutional law. Two different stories, one from USA Today and one from Concurring Opinions remind us that judicial politics is interconnected to constitutional law.
USA Today discusses the potential influence of external events on two US Supreme Court’s decisions still to come. The first is Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics (No. 12-398). The case asked whether anyone could patent human genes. Myriad Genetics tried to patent two genes; mutations in these genes are important indicators of breast and ovarian cancer in women. Myriad argued that isolating genes is a process that deserves a patent, but a patent would limit the ability of other scientists, pharmaceutical companies, or other researchers to work with the genes and develop alternative tests or treatments. Enter Angelina Jolie, academy award winner and female action star. It was recently reported that Jolie took Myriad’s test, found that she had a mutation, and then underwent a double mastectomy. The aforementioned story in USA today notes the potential for this high profile celebrity story on the test and its costs ($4,000) may further highlight the implications of a ruling for Myriad—most women would be unable to afford the same test. Additionally, the story about Jolie, as USA Today put it, “sent Myriad’s stock soaring…”
The same story discusses the potential impact of recent decisions by several states to accept same sex marriage. The purported change in the trend toward greater acceptance could, if the justices interpret the “polling of jurisdictions” to be heading in the liberal direction, sway the justices in the Perry and Windsor. Alternatively, the remaining states, 38, that still ban same sex marriage could support a decision in the conservative direction. Either way, the decision of the various states is reported as potentially impacting Supreme Court decision-making.
Extralegal influences, such as publicity or state policy changes, are always present and can influence decision-making. Similarly, there are internal constraints or norms that also influence appellate decision-making and the blog Concurring Opinions provided an excellent example of these constraints on the same day as USA Today highlighted the extralegal factors. As reported, Judge David Tatel gave a speech at a ceremony unveiling and hanging a portrait of Judge David Sentelle. The post notes that the two judges sit, ideologically speaking, at different ends of the spectrum. Yet, the judges agreed on decisions most of the time (97%). In the speech, Tatel notes that “despite our best efforts at neutrality, we cannot but see the world—and the law—through the lens of who we are…” Yet, the D.C. Circuit has a norm of collegiality that helped yield an astounding agreement rate of two judges that, barring this norm, would likely not see eye to eye.
Together these examples highlight the complexity of explaining judicial decision-making and the parsimony of any of our models of that behavior. It’s not all attitudes, strategy, or the law. As we head toward the end of the term, it will be interesting to see if Jolie or Minnesota influence the justices, or not.