A guide to the 2021 Supreme Court — and how it's likely to rule on today's biggest issues
As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court impacts basically every aspect of life in the United States — but some of its decisions have more consequences than others. The court wraps up its current term this month, but there are several major cases that have yet to be decided, including an LGBTQ+ civil rights case. With such important cases looming, you may be wondering about the justices behind the Supreme Court's rulings.
The Supreme Court is made up of nine justices — one chief justice and eight associate justices — who get their lifetime position by presidential appointment. Right now, John G. Roberts, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, is the chief justice of the United States. Some argue that the process of appointment is absurd and the justices should have to run for office like anybody else, especially because being a justice is a lifetime gig (unless somene chooses to retire early). As it is now, the only way voters have to influence who becomes a Supreme Court justice is with their presidential vote, despite the fact that the high court's ruling affect their everyday lives.
With the passing of late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020 and subsequent appointment of the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, the already conservative-leaning Supreme Court has gone even further to the right. But, what exactly does that mean? And of the more liberal justices, do they really fall all that far to the left? Let's look at where the Supreme Court justices today fall on a political scale. We'll start with the more liberal ones first, as there are only three of them.
Appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2009, Sotomayor is the most liberal of the current Supreme Court. Per Ballotpedia, Sotomayor's Martin-Quinn score following the 2019-2020 term was -3.48. The Martin-Quinn scale begins at 0 and measures each justice along an ideological continuum; the further "left" you are (so the higher your negative number), the more liberal you are, and the further "right" you are (so a higher positive number) the more conservative you are.
In 2019, USA Today reported that Sotomayor and Ginsburg, regarded as one of the most liberal justices of all time, agreed in 93% of the court's cases from its then-most recent term. For reference, Ginsburg's Martin-Quinn score for the 2019-2020 term was -2.82.
Sotomayor, the first Latinx person to serve on the Supreme Court, is known for her refusal to pull punches in her dissents, especially as the court began its shift right. For example, in 2015, following the court's 5-4 decision to uphold lethal injections in executions, Sotomayor wrote it "may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake."
In addition, when the court upheld former President Donald Trump's ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries, Sotomayor didn't follow the dissent written by fellow liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, which broadly appealed to conservatives. Instead, Sotomayor and Ginsburg wrote their own dissent, spending nearly seven pages just summarizing Trump's past Islamophobic comments.
In 2015, Sotomayor joined the Supreme Court's majority opinion in deciding that same-sex couples could marry. In 2019, Sotomayor joined other liberal members of the court in blocking a Louisiana law that would have left the state with only one doctor to provide abortions. She should be a reliable liberal vote on nearly any issue that comes before the justices.
By Supreme Court standards, Kagan is fairly liberal. Ballotpedia reported that her Martin-Quinn score was -1.69 following the 2019-2020 term. However, both Kagan and Breyer (who rank pretty evenly on the Martin-Quinn score, as you'll see) would be best described as moderates.
In 2018, Slate reported that although Kagan's overall voting pattern remained progressive, she joined conservatives in at least three decisions. Last year, USA Today referred to Kagan as a "bridge-builder." Abbe Gluck, a professor at Yale Law School and former law clerk for Ginsburg, told the outlet, "[Kagan] has gone out of her way to find areas of common ground with all the more conservative members of the court."
When it comes to health care, Kagan has stayed true to her liberal roots. In 2012, Kagan, alongside Sotomayor, Breyer, Roberts, and Ginsburg, voted to uphold Obamacare. Additionally, like Sotomayor, Kagan voted that same-sex couples could marry in 2015, and blocked the Louisiana abortion law in 2019.
Like Kagan, Breyer, appointed by former President Bill Clinton in 1994, is liberal by Supreme Court standards. His Martin-Quinn score is -1.87.
Per Britannica, Breyer tends to vote progressively when it comes to issues regarding civil rights. He was around for Bush v. Gore in 2000, which decided that year's election, and issued a dissent against the Supreme Court's decision, stating that the court should have refused the case in the first place because it was a political question.
As I mentioned before, Breyer voted to uphold Obamacare in 2012. He also joined Sotomayor and Kagan in voting that same-sex couples could marry in 2015 and blocking the Louisiana abortion law in 2019.
Now we're getting into the conservative members of the court.
I talked about Roberts, the current chief justice, a little in the introduction. Given that he's a Bush appointee, you can assume that Roberts leans conservative. Per Ballotpedia, his Martin-Quinn score is 0.22 for the 2019-2020 term, making him the fifth most conservative justice for that term (which included Ginsburg instead of Barrett).
In general, Roberts has voted conservatively on issues like gun control and abortion access. But last year, Roberts surprised many when he issued the decisive vote to preserve abortion access in Louisiana. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court also announced it wouldn't hear any of the 10 Second Amendment cases it had been considering. Many conservatives took it as a signal that Roberts is no longer a guaranteed vote against gun control laws.
Even if you don't pay a lot of attention to the Supreme Court, you should know Kavanaugh, the 2018 Trump appointee. In case you forgot: He's the one with numerous allegations of sexual assault against him. During his Senate confirmation process, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were teenagers, testified before the Senate. Republicans in the Senate confirmed him anyway.
As a Trump appointee, Kavanaugh was expected to be conservative from the start. Plus, his record as a judge in Washington, D.C., already hinted that Kavanaugh would be a big assist for conservatives looking to strike down abortion, affirmative action, voting rights, and more. In 2018, The Washington Post reported that Kavanaugh had the most conservative or second-most conservative voting record in every policy area.
So, his Martin-Quinn score of 0.51 shouldn't be a surprise. And although Kavanaugh hasn't been on the Supreme Court long, so he doesn't have as long of a voting record to gather clues from, you can already see some voting patterns play out. Last year, Kavanaugh joined Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in dissenting against the Supreme Court's ruling that employers can't fire people for being LGBTQ+. He also dissented against the 2019 ruling that blocked the Louisiana abortion law.
Gorsuch became the first of Trump's three Supreme Court appointments in 2017, when he was chosen to fill the seat vacated by the late Antonin Scalia, who died just nine months before the 2016 election. Although Obama had a nominee picked out (Merrick Garland, who is now President Biden's attorney general), then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to schedule a vote or hold hearings on Garland's nomination. As a result, Scalia's seat remained open until Trump took office, and Gorsuch's appointment was highly controversial.
After the 2019-2020 term, Gorsuch had a Martin-Quinn score of 0.84. Although he upset some conservatives last year when he voted to protect LGBTQ+ workers under federal civil rights laws, don't mistake that as Gorsuch being an ally. In 2018, Gorsuch cast the decisive vote that upheld Trump's travel ban. In 2019, he, like Kavanaugh, dissented against the Louisiana abortion law ruling.
Another Bush nominee! With a Martin-Quinn score of 2.05 following the 2019-2020 term, Alito is one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court — but that's easy to see from his rulings.
You can expect Alito to vote against gay marriage, abortion rights, and gun control laws. He's the voice of the so-called religious right on the Supreme Court. Last year, Alito delivered a blatantly partisan speech where he said coronavirus restrictions have "resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty."
He has also argued that "conservatives are being censored at most institutions" dogwhistle. His example? "You can't say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman," Alito said. "Until very recently, that's what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it's considered bigotry."
Both Alito and Thomas (we'll get into him next) are known for subscribing to the theory of "originalism" when it comes to constitutional law. It's the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its "original meaning," — a.k.a., literally what the framers meant and would've been referring to when they wrote the document in 1787. The idea is that the justices have to adhere to what the document meant when it was written and ratified, no matter what they may personally think. But as Vox explained, the reality is much more complicated.
With nearly three decades on the bench under his belt, Thomas is the longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court. Former President George H.W. Bush appointed Thomas in 1991. Similarly to Kavanaugh, Thomas faced sexual harassment allegations during his confirmation process; his accuser was law professor Anita Hill, who also testified before the Senate. Thomas was still confirmed, becoming just the second Black justice in U.S. history.
That doesn't mean he does communities of color any favors, though. Thomas is unmistakably conservative. Ballotpedia reported that Thomas had a Martin-Quinn score of 3.69 following the 2019-2020 term, the most conservative score of the entire bench. In 2019, lawyer Michael O'Donnell wrote in The Atlantic that "Thomas opposes most policies that seek to combat discrimination or help minorities. He disfavors integration and even seems to resist desegregation."
When it comes to other social issues, he's not any better. Last year, Thomas and Alito referred to the court's 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which allowed gay couples to marry, as "enabl[ing] courts and governments to brand religious adherents who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman as bigots, making their religious liberty concerns that much easier to dismiss."
Amy Coney Barrett
Barrett only joined the Supreme Court in 2020. She was Trump's final appointee, tapped to replace Ginsburg. Unfortunately, you can expect Barrett to be the exact opposite of Ginsburg.
Ballotpedia hasn't generated a Martin-Quinn score for Barrett yet because she's yet to complete her first full term. But Barrett is known to be deeply conservative. She believes in limiting abortion access and has spoken out against LGBTQ+ rights before: During a 2016 talk at a Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute, Barrett questioned whether the Supreme Court should have taken up the Obergefell v. Hodges case at all, stating, "Those who want same-sex marriage, you have every right to lobby in state legislatures to make that happen, but the dissent's view was that it wasn’t for the court to decide."
Reading between the lines, that basically means Barrett believes the Supreme Court should have left it up to states to decide if they'd recognize marriage equality. That means that in future cases of LGBTQ+ rights, she's likely to vote against them. In addition, Barrett is likely to vote in favor of restricting or eliminating abortion access. Although her resume as a judge is limited, Katie Watson, an attorney and bioethicist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told NPR, "I'd expect [Barrett] to overrule Roe, and she appears to have four other sitting judges who are willing to join her."