Empirical evidence of Roberts’ switch in the ACA case

The metrics suggest Roberts was not the only one to switch

With a Supreme Court nominee declaring there has been a left-wing conspiracy against him, naturally people are wondering whether a Justice Kavanaugh, if confirmed, could eventually act in a more judicious fashion. If not, might the new median of Court, Chief Justice Roberts, rise to the challenge of putting the institutional interests of the Court above his own political preferences? Looking back at the Chief’s role in deciding the fate of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), we are optimistic that he can.

When the fate of the ACA was decided in NFIB v. Sebelius, many were surprised to see the conservative Chief side with the liberal justices to uphold the signature legislation of the Democrat President. Others anticipated it, expecting Roberts to subvert his political preferences to avoid a 5:4 conservative-liberal divide on such a salient case in the lead-up to the 2012 election. On reading the opinions, many were struck by the fact that Roberts’ majority opinion read in large part as a manifesto against the legislation he was unhappily upholding; in addition, the dissent at times referred to the majority as “the dissent.” This suggested that Roberts may have initially sided with the conservatives – a view furthered by rumors to that effect. Until now, this has all been speculation. Here, we assess the empirical evidence from oral argument as to whether Roberts switched, and find some interesting results: not only did Roberts switch, but he was not the only one who changed his vote on some of the issues.

The four separate parts to the Obamacare oral argument

There were four questions addressed in four separate oral arguments over three days: (1) whether the constitutional validity of the ACA should even be heard by the Court; (2) whether Congress has power to require Americans to purchase healthcare, via the individual mandate, either under the Commerce Clause or the Taxing and Spending Clause; (3) whether, if the individual mandate was unconstitutional, it was severable, or alternatively, if the rest of the ACA must fall as a result; (4) and whether Congress exceeded its powers under the Spending Clause by threatening to withhold Medicaid spending to non-cooperating states. The following figures show how the justices behaved at each of the four oral arguments in order, measured by the disagreement gap. As we explained in more detail in a previous post, the justices tend to have more to say to the side they ultimately vote against. This can be measured in terms of speech events or just the difference in the number of words. If the gap is very small, we treat it as a weak signal, colored gray; occasionally, the size of the disagreement gap on one measure will be large but other factors, such as the balance of statements versus questions, or the disagreement gap on another measure, indicates that the signal should be treated as weak.

ACA Issue 1 Disagreement Gap (Words) [Click on the image to expand]

ACA Issue 1 Disagreement Gap (Speech Events) [Click on the image to expand]
On the first issue, of whether the Court should address the substantive issues at all in light of the Anti-Injunction Act, the above figure shows that at least four of the justices strongly indicated a desire to decide the case on its merits, and the others did not give a clear signal. Only Justice Scalia seemed consistently against a decision on the merits, but only with a weak signal from a justice who seldom held his cards close to his chest. The first issue, then, looked cross-partisan, with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan wanting to hear the case, presumably to uphold the legislation, as clearly as Justice Alito, who presumably wanted to strike down the legislation. Roberts, too, made clear his desire to decide the case on the merits. Consistent with this, the Court ultimately unanimously held that the Anti-Injunction Act did not apply and that the case should be decided on the merits. This suggests that our metrics are working reasonably well.

ACA Issue 2 Disagreement Gap (Words) [Click on the image to expand]
ACA Issue 2 Disagreement Gap (Speech Events) [Click on the image to expand]
The second issue was the key question in the case and here our analysis in the figure above strongly suggests that Roberts did indeed switch his vote from striking down the legislation to upholding it under the Taxing Power. On both measures, the disagreement gap in words and speech episodes, Roberts consistently measures as the second most vehement against the ACA, behind Alito on one measure and Scalia on another. At oral argument, Roberts seemed to be the most consistently opposed to the ACA and yet he ultimately provided the swing vote in favor.

However, it is important to note that this oral argument addressed the government’s power to pass the ACA under both the Taxing Clause and the Commerce Clause. In authoring the majority opinion, although Roberts found the ACA constitutional under the Taxing Clause, he went out of his way to make clear that the Commerce Clause did not support the passage of the ACA. If Roberts had gone into the oral argument thinking that the ACA was valid as a tax but not under the Commerce Clause, we would have expected to see at least mixed signals from him during this section of oral argument rather than a signal strongly against the ACA. Furthermore, given that if the law was valid as a tax, its status under any other head of constitutional power should have been irrelevant, if Roberts held his tax position from the outset, he should have been less interested in the Commerce Clause issue.

ACA Issue 3 Disagreement Gap (Words) [Click on the image to expand]
ACA Issue 3 Disagreement Gap (Speech Events) [Click on the image to expand]
So it looks like Roberts switched his vote on the all-important second issue, but he was not alone in making a switch on an issue in this case. On the third issue, as seen in the above figure, Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor all come out very strongly on both measures in favor of severability, pointing to a way that even if the mandate was struck down, the rest of the Act would stand. Yet, eventually all three of those justices joined the 5:4 majority that did not answer this question, even though the dissent addressed the issue in detail. This is not surprising: compromise is a standard part of the political and diplomatic process of building a coalition on a multi-judge court. What is noteworthy is that it shows that Roberts was not the only one who appeared to have switched – our empirical analysis of the oral argument suggest that other Justices were also acting strategically in NFIB v. Sebelius.

ACA Issue 4 Disagreement Gap (Words) [Click on the image to expand]
ACA Issue 4 Disagreement Gap (Speech Events) [Click on the image to expand]
Given Justice Thomas’ habitual silence, oral argument on the fourth issue indicated a very clear 4:4 liberal-conservative divide among the speaking justices would translate into a conservative 5:4 ruling. Such an ideological division would have fit with previous Spending Clause decisions (e.g. New York v. United States, 1992). Yet, the ultimate outcome was 7:2 against the ACA. At oral argument, Justices Kagan and Breyer led the pro-ACA charge when it came to the disagreement gap in speech events and both were close behind Sotomayor in terms of the disagreement gap in the number of words, and ahead of Justice Ginsburg. And yet Kagan and Breyer joined the opinion striking down this part of the ACA. The majority decision looks to be a product of politics: perhaps Kagan and Breyer were making a strategic concession – compromising on the Spending issue to ensure the constitutionality of the legislation under the Taxing power – or perhaps they were following the Chief’s lead and moderating their positions to preserve the institutional legitimacy of the Court.

* * *

Our empirical analysis of the oral argument in NFIB v. Sebelius indicates that four justices ultimately voted against at least one of their priors on display at oral argument. It is, of course, possible that our metrics are inaccurate, but they align with many commentators’ and experts’ expectations at the time. Possibly, these justices changed their fundamental views some time after oral argument, but another explanation is more likely. We see NFIB v. Sebelius as a case study in judicial strategy, the politics of compromise and coalition building, and how the justices occasionally sacrifice their individual policy preferences to protect the legitimacy of the Court.

By Tonja Jacobi and Matthew Sag

Notes: (1) Thanks to Barry Weingast for suggesting this inquiry. (2) For a more detailed account, see Tonja Jacobi, Obamacare As A Window on Judicial Strategy, 80 Tenn. L. Rev. 763 (2013) (ssrn link)

Judge Kavanaugh and a perfectly polarized Supreme Court

The Kavanaugh nomination is controversial not just politically, but institutionally

This week witnessed one of the most contentious and partisan Supreme Court nomination hearings in living memory. There are many reasons why the fight over the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court has been particularly intense. Kavanagh played a controversial role as part of the legal team in the Starr investigation into President Clinton and then in the Bush administration’s use of torture; indeed, questions having been raised over whether he was honest about his role in that policy in previous confirmation hearings. Many of Judge Kavanagh’s views (or the views ascribed to him) are unpopular with the majority of Americans: his position on a woman’s right to choose, the role of money in politics, the role of the state in providing healthcare, and whether politicians should be allowed to effectively choose their voters by gerrymandering  district boundaries with impunity. Taken together, these positions make a predicted Justice Kavanaugh the second most conservative justice on the Court, closest to Justice Thomas, one of the most extreme justices since modern ideological scoring of the Court began. It is not entirely surprising, then, that according to one recent poll, Judge Kavanaugh is the most unpopular Supreme Court nominee since Robert Bork, who failed to win confirmation in 1987.

Beyond Judge Kavanaugh’s potential to shift doctrine and policy to the right, the Kavanagh nomination represents a watershed moment in the history of the Supreme Court as an institution. If Kavanagh is confirmed, the Court will be perfectly polarized along partisan lines: all four liberal justices will have been appointed by Democrat presidents, and all five conservative justices will have been appointed by Republican presidents. As Neal Devins and Lawrence Baum explored in their 2016 article, Split Definitive: How Party Polarization Turned the Supreme Court into a Partisan Court, broader political polarization has turned the Supreme Court into a far more partisan institution. According to Devins and Baum, the 2010 Term heralded a new era of polarization when the liberal-voting Justice Stevens, appointed by Republican President Ford, was replaced by Justice Kagan. Yet even then, the Court was not yet perfectly polarized because on a few key issues, such as gay rights and capital punishment, Justice Kennedy sometimes voted in coalition with the more liberal justices and against the position of the Republican party. If Justice Kennedy is replaced by Judge Kavanaugh, we can expect close to perfect polarization on the Court. What effect will such polarization bring to the Court?

In our forthcoming article, The New Oral Argument: Justices as Advocates, we show that there has already been significant impact from partisan polarization and we suggest that the effect of perfect polarization will likely be considerable. The polarization on the Court follows from the massive political polarization in Congress, which greatly accelerated in the mid-1990s after the Republican Revolution in Congress and contributed to congressional dysfunction. Elite political polarization soon translated into polarization among the public, which created public animosity and division. The Supreme Court is far from immune: we show that political polarization was associated with an increase in the justices behaving as advocates during oral argument.

One manifestation of such advocacy is that the justices are far more active at oral arguments, taking up considerably more of the time previously reserved for the advocates to make their cases. The following figure shows how that increased dramatically around 1995, as the country became more polarized.

Click on the image to enlarge
Average number of words spoken by the justices per case (1970-2017 Terms)

The figure shows the average number of words spoken by the justices per case in each Term before and after 1995. The shaded region shows the 95% confidence interval for the trendline in each period. There was a slight upward trend before 1995, but a far more significant discontinuity in the mid-1990s is evident on the graph, indicating that there was a large jump in the mid-1990s, when the average number of words spoken went from around 2000 before 1995 to closer to 4000 after 1995. This finding is supported by more sophisticated multivariate regression analysis, controlling for other variables. We conducted the same analysis to assess changes in the amount of time the justices speak: of the standard 60 minute oral argument, since 1995 the justices are taking up an additional 13 minutes on average.

It would seem obvious to expect, given these findings, that the justices are asking more questions, since the Supreme Court website describes the purpose of oral arguments as providing an opportunity for the justices to ask questions of the advocates directly. Yet as the figure below shows, that is not the case.

Click on the image to enlarge
Average number of questions and non-questions by the justices (1960-2015 Terms)

In the figure, the solid navy circles represent the average number of questions asked by the justices per case each Term at oral argument. The solid red circles represent the number of comments made by the justices on average per case. As can clearly be seen, the number of questions remained largely constant from 1960 to 2015, despite the massive increase in the number of words spoken by the justices. In contrast, the number of comments by the justices vastly increased, rising from approximately 100 per case to over 150 per case by 1995, and has reached close to an average of 200 per case by 2015. Once again, the shaded 95% confidence intervals indicate a clear and significant upward shift in the mid-1990s.

In The New Oral Argument, we argue that the more justices behave like advocates (i.e., presenting conclusions rather than asking questions), the more they will be perceived to have prejudged the issues in the cases presented to them. This threatens to undermine the Court’s legitimacy and the public’s faith in the Rule of Law. No one can know with certainty what will happen if Kavanaugh joins the Court—it is possible that he may bring a different approach or tone to Supreme Court arguments that will change the increasingly divided culture. However, given that his appointment would begin an era of expected perfect polarization, that seems unlikely. Political scientists and public surveys have shown that polarization leads to acrimony and divisiveness, due to a lack of middle ground and consequent inability to form a common consensus. This is particularly true among educated elites, such as Supreme Court justices. It is unsurprising, then, that the push to install a candidate with views far outside the mainstream has been controversial. That controversy is unlikely to fade away if Judge Kavanaugh joins a highly divided Supreme Court.

By Tonja Jacobi & Matthew Sag