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The Shadow Docket Review: How the US Supreme Court Keeps Sunlight Out

Only a quarter of Americans have confidence in the supreme court. As the country strives to navigate a post-Roe v Wade world, the right to abortion removed, regard for the right wing of the court is scarcer still. Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito have negative ratings with the public. Kavanaugh and Thomas are underwater by double-digits.

Being perceived as a predator – Kavanaugh – engenders disdain or worse. Taking undisclosed gifts from a Republican mega-donor and being married to an election-denier who trades on her spouse’s judgeship – Thomas – triggers demands for renewed oversight.

When Ginni Thomas visited the White House “you knew your day was wrecked”, said a senior Trump aide, according to the Daily Beast. This week came news that Clarence Thomas and Alito have not yet filed their financial disclosures and have received extensions. The circus rumbles on.

Against such a backdrop, Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas law school and CNN commentator, delivers The Shadow Docket.

Under the subtitle “How the Supreme Court Uses Stealth Rulings to Amass Power and Undermine the Republic”, Vladeck offers a well-researched indictment of how the supreme court has grown to rely on using procedural orders rather than rulings to make new law, escaping scrutiny while delivering major victories to the political right.

The term “shadow docket” was coined in 2015, by William Baude, a University of Chicago law professor. In Vladeck’s words, it was “a catch-all for a body of the supreme court’s work that was, to that point, receiving virtually no academic or public attention”.

Strictly speaking, the shadow docket is a vehicle for addressing issues that demand urgent attention, usually injunctions and orders to preserve the status quo. But it has morphed into a fraught topic. The court has adjudicated cases involving abortion, voting rights and Covid policy by means of the shadow docket. The docket also became the prime location for the elevation and reordering of religious rights, under the free exercise clause of the first amendment.

Almost by definition, docket rulings are sparse. They are often unaccompanied by reasoning, Vladeck writes. “Invariably”, they lack “identification of how (or how many of) the justices voted and can be handed down at all times of day or, as has increasingly become the norm, in the middle of the night.”

Vladeck knows his subject. In September 2021, he testified to the Senate judiciary committee about “Texas’s Unconstitutional Abortion Ban and the Role of the Shadow Docket”.

He has also said: “What’s remarkable is that the court repeatedly acquiesced and acquiesced [to the right] … and almost always without any explanation.”

On the page, he observes that few such Trumpian wins have resulted in actual binding precedents. Rather, shadow docket triumphs mainly satisfy political needs. Vladeck credits Noel Francisco, the solicitor general under Trump, and his deputy, for hatching the legal strategy that for example salvaged the Muslim travel ban and efforts to “build the wall” on the southern border without express congressional appropriation.

SB-8, the Texas six-week abortion ban, provides a stark illustration of how the process continues to work. In September 2021, the supreme court did not formally opine on the constitutionality of the draconian Texas law. Instead, in an unsigned shadow docket order, a bare majority allowed the statute to slide into effect. It read:

The application for injunctive relief or, in the alternative, to vacate stays of the district court proceedings presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the court is denied.”

The text made no mention of Roe, the 1973 ruling then in place, safeguarding federal abortion rights. But everyone could see what was coming.

John Roberts, the chief justice, a George W Bush appointee, would have stopped the Texas law from going into effect, pending a decision on the merits. The statutory rubric was “unusual” and “unprecedented”, he wrote. “The legislature has imposed a prohibition on abortions after roughly six weeks, and then essentially delegated enforcement of that prohibition to the populace at large.”

Months later, Roberts voted with the three liberals to save Roe. No matter. The court struck it down.

Not everyone welcomes the attention Vladeck and others have brought to the use of the shadow docket. Alito publicly twitted the media for portraying it as something “sinister”, and depicting the court as “having been captured by a dangerous cabal that resorts to sneaky and improper methods to get its ways”.

On the other hand, Thomas’s friendship with the mega-donor Harlan Crowe should surely give any observer clear reason to pause.

Elsewhere, Coney Barrett has denied that the court engages in results-oriented decision-making, urging an audience at the Reagan Library in April 2022 to “read the opinion” instead.

Vladeck is unswayed: “It’s essential context to point out that, just two days later, she joined a 5-4 shadow docket ruling with no opinion for the public to read. It’s all part of the story – or, at least, it should be.”

“The rise of the shadow docket … has negative effects on public perception of the court – and of the perceived legitimacy of the justices’ work,” Vladeck writes.

The legitimacy of the court erodes.

The Shadow Docket is comprehensive and sensitive to nuance, written for concerned audiences. Members of Congress, the bar, the press and engaged non-lawyers come to mind. Vladeck covers more than two centuries of legal history, together with the transformation of the court into a visibly co-equal branch of government.

On Thursday night, news broke of 37 federal criminal counts against Donald Trump. The next election is 17 months away. The legitimacy and resilience of all US institutions stands to be tested like never before.

Source: The Guardian