Any ranking system contains elements of subjectivity and arbitrariness, and this is unquestionably true when attempting to rank the current justices on the United States Supreme Court. And it should go without saying that every justice on the Court is an incredibly accomplished and well-respected jurist, and among the brightest minds in the legal profession.

Notwithstanding, based on each justice’s jurisprudence, one can gain a general sense of their effectiveness, influence, and impact on the Court and the rule of law. The following rankings, which are admittedly subjective and unscientific, are predicated on the following factors: (1) the influence, if any, of ideology on a justice’s decision-making; (2) the quality of a justice’s written opinions and legal reasoning; (3) the extent to which a justice’s outcomes reflect a reasonable interpretation of a constitutional provision, statute, or regulation and thus preserve the rule of law; and (4) the degree to which a justice considers the pragmatic consequences of a decision, particularly as it affects the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

1.    Elena Kagan

By all accounts, Justice Kagan is a brilliant legal mind. Justice Kagan possesses outstanding writing skills and the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively with lawyers and laypersons. Additionally, Justice Kagan’s decisions eschew ideology and reflect a balanced approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation, and fidelity to the rule of law.

One of Justice Kagan’s best opinions was a dissent in Rucho v. Common Cause, where Justice Kagan passionately and persuasively argued that partisan gerrymandering was anathema to the Constitution and democracy, and squarely within the Court’s adjudicatory powers. Regarding the partisan gerrymanders in Rucho, Justice Kagan emphasized that they “debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”[1]

2.    Neil Gorsuch

Justice Gorsuch has consistently demonstrated that he is a principled originalist. Originalism states that judges should interpret the Constitution’s text based on what the drafters of a particular provision understood those words to mean at the time such provision was ratified. In his opinions, Justice Gorsuch consistently places the rule of law above subjective values or personal policy predilections. Indeed, Justice Gorsuch’s opinions are very well-reasoned and grounded in a faithful interpretation of a constitutional or statutory text. Put simply, Justice Gorsuch is not guided by ideology and his jurisprudence reflects humility and respect for the democratic process.

3.    John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts is among the most brilliant lawyers of his generation – and for good reason. Roberts’s intellect, advocacy skills, and writing ability are second to none.  Additionally, Chief Justice Roberts is, by all accounts, a humble jurist who respects the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, and democratic choice. Furthermore, Chief Justice Roberts strives to achieve consensus among the justices (thus avoiding, to the extent possible, divisive 5-4 opinions) and is committed to preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

Importantly, however, the desire to preserve the Court’s legitimacy and status as an apolitical branch has led, perhaps inadvertently, to decisions that invite precisely the criticisms Roberts seeks to avoid. For example, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Roberts wrote for a 5-4 majority, in which the Court held that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate passed constitutional muster under the Taxing and Spending Clause, despite substantial evidence that the mandate was an unconstitutional penalty.[2] Roberts’s decision, which surprised many legal scholars, was seen by some as an attempt to avoid the negative political consequences that a ruling invalidating the Affordable Care Act would engender. However, Roberts’s decisions in McCutcheon v. FEC, in which the Court invalidated a limit on contributions that an individual could make to a national party over a two-year period, and in Shelby County v. Holder, where the Court invalidated Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Civil Rights Act (despite a Senate vote of 98-0 to reauthorize these sections) engendered significant criticism and the very charges of illegitimacy that Roberts ostensibly seeks to avoid.[3]

Put simply, an overarching focus on preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy invariably involves precisely the element of subjectivity (and, to an extent, arbitrariness), that is anathema to legitimacy itself.

4.    Stephen Breyer

Justice Breyer is a thoughtful and very intelligent jurist who balances fidelity to the rule of law with a consideration of the pragmatic consequences of decisions. And Breyer’s jurisprudence does not suggest that he is guided by subjective values or ideological considerations.  Instead, Justice Breyer’s decisions are almost always well-reasoned and balanced, regardless of whether one agrees with the outcome of such decisions. For example, in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, Breyer wrote for a 5-3 majority that invalidated a requirement in Texas that abortion providers obtain hospital admitting privileges.[4}

The decision in Whole Women’s Health was based on a reasonable review of the record and of precedent regarding abortion rights.

One criticism of Justice Breyer, however, is that he subscribes to a method of constitutional interpretation known as “living constitutionalism,” which states that the Constitution’s meaning evolves over time and that the meaning of a particular constitutional provision should reflect contemporary societal values. The problem with this approach is that it vests nine unelected and life-tenured judges with the ability to identify – for the entire nation – prevailing societal values and to impose those values through decisions that often disregard or manipulate the Constitution’s text.

5.    Clarence Thomas

Justice Thomas is a faithful adherent to originalism. The principle undergirding originalism is that judges do not have the right to unilaterally disregard, manipulate, or change the Constitution’s meaning based on their subjective values or policy predilections.[5] Doing so would be fundamentally anti-democratic and give judges the unfettered right to undermine the democratic process and identify unenumerated rights based on nothing more than their personal values. Justice Thomas consistently adheres to this philosophy.

However, Justice Thomas can sometimes be far too formalistic and eschew any consideration whatsoever of the pragmatic consequences of his decisions. This is not necessarily a criticism, although originalism does not – and should not – prohibit judges from basing decisions on pragmatic considerations where such decisions would be consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution’s text. For example, Justice Thomas has repeatedly advocated for reversing Roe v. Wade, where the Court held that the right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment protects a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy under certain circumstances.[6] Although the decision in Roe, particularly the reasoning, was arguably one of the worst in the last fifty years, the reliance that women have placed on Roe during this time, and the political and social divisiveness that would accompany overturning Roe, counsel in favor of adhering to Roe’s central holding. Thus, Thomas’s rather rigid position on Roe, and his overly formalistic legal analysis in other cases, leaves far too little room for pragmatic considerations.

6.    Sonia Sotomayor

Justice Sotomayor is an incredibly accomplished jurist who has authored several passionate and well-reasoned dissents, particularly in the areas of abortion and affirmative action. And Justice Sotomayor’s personal story, in which her intellect and work ethic propelled her to Princeton University and Yale Law School, is truly inspiring.

However, in a number of decisions, Justice Sotomayor, whose jurisprudence reflects living constitutionalism, appears to be motivated more by ideology or policy preferences than a commitment to the rule of law. This is arguably evident in the Court’s affirmative action jurisprudence, such as in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, where Justice Sotomayor’s reasoning read more like a policy prescription than a legal opinion, and where Sotomayor ostensibly eschewed any workable legal standards for assessing the constitutionality of affirmative action policies.[7] Regardless of one’s views on affirmative action, one gets the sense that Justice Sotomayor will, without exception, uphold any affirmative action policy irrespective of the merits of that policy. That approach is antithetical to the role of and limits on judicial decision-making.

7.    Brett Kavanaugh

Justice Kavanaugh, a graduate of Yale Law School, had an extraordinarily impressive record as an attorney and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where, by all accounts, Kavanaugh was a fair and principled judge.

Justice Kavanaugh’s ranking is not a reflection of his jurisprudence. Rather, he has not been on the Court for a sufficient time to adequately assess his jurisprudence, judicial philosophy, and impact on the Court and the law.

8.    Samuel Alito

Justice Alito is extremely intelligent, and a well-respected and accomplished jurist.

However, one gets the sense from both oral arguments and Justice Alito’s written opinions that his decisions are motivated in substantial part by ideological considerations and policy preferences. Indeed, on November 12, 2020, Justice Alito delivered a speech to the Federalist Society in which he criticized the Court’s free exercise jurisprudence, its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (invalidating same-sex marriage bans), and the protections afforded to free speech.[8]

Note: Amy Coney Barrett: Having been confirmed only a few weeks ago, Justice Barrett has not been on the Court for a sufficient time to justify including her in the ranking.

 

[1]  139 S. Ct. 2484 (2019) (Kagan, J., dissenting).

[2] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[3] 572 U.S. 185; 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[4] 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016).

[5] Of course, originalism, like living constitutionalism, can also be used as a tool to impose a judge’s subjective values and policy preferences. However, principled originalists eschew such an approach and predicate their decisions on ascribing the meaning that the drafters intended at the time a provision was ratified.

[6] 410 U.S. 133 (1973).

[7] 572 U.S. 291 (2012).

[8] Sydney Bauer, Justice Alito Takes Aim at Gay Marriage in ‘Politically Charged Speech,’ (Nov. 13, 2020), available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/justice-alito-takes-aim-gay-marriage-politically-charged-speech-n1247772