Even when Supreme Court decisions are unanimous, the justices can be fiercely divided about fundamental matters, as was demonstrated by two 9-0 rulings last month.
One overturned a Massachusetts law restricting speech near abortion clinics. The other invalidated recess appointments that President Obama made when the Senate said it was not in recess. In the first, four justices who concurred in the result rejected the majority's reasoning because it minimized the law's constitutional offense. In the second, four justices who concurred with the court's judgment that Obama had exceeded his powers argued that the majority's reasoning validated the Senate's long complicity in practices that augment presidential power by diminishing the Senate's power to advise and consent to presidential nominations.
The court unanimously held that Massachusetts may not protect women seeking abortions from peaceful attempts to change their minds. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., practicing judicial minimalism, argued only that the Massachusetts law was unnecessarily broad for protecting public order. Roberts wrote that the buffer zone — a euphemism for a no-speech zone — is "content neutral" because it does not discriminate against a particular point of view. This nonsense may have been necessary for preserving unanimity with the more liberal justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Justice Antonin Scalia, however, in a concurrence that was 95 percent dissent, called Massachusetts's law "unconstitutional root and branch" because, far from being content-neutral, it pertains only to abortion clinics, it predictably will restrict only people speaking against what the clinics do and it restricts them in places — public sidewalks — where free speech is protected. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined Scalia's concurrence, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a similar one.
The second 9 to 0 decision rebuked Obama for one of his anti-constitutional excesses. But that foreordained result was less important than the peculiar reasoning that perhaps was necessary to make unanimity possible.
A Washington state business, having received an adverse ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, argued that the board had an illegitimate quorum. Obama had made recess appointments to the board when the Senate was holding (as it has done with the consent of both parties) pro forma meetings — and conducting some business — every three days to establish that it was not in recess.
The court did not quite rule that tradition validates departures from the Constitution's text. But neither did it say, as it should have, that even long-standing practices should end when they are deemed to conflict with an unambiguous text. Instead, Breyer practiced a perverse form of judicial restraint, decreeing that a recess of less than 10 days is "presumptively" too short for recess appointments. In another dissent-as-concurrence, Scalia, joined by Roberts, Thomas and Alito, noted that Breyer's presumption leaves presidents with much more latitude than the Constitution's text stipulates.
Unanimity is not only spurious, it is injurious when purchased at the price of compromises that suggest disingenuousness. The Constitution's purposes and architecture were sacrificed twice to produce 9 to 0 decisions. One denied the obvious — that Massachusetts's law was written to impede anti-abortion speech. The other flinched from the fact that the recess appointments clause requires judicial enforcement, not Breyer's judicial embroidery to allow the continuation of behavior that both elected branches under both parties have found convenient. Two conservative priorities, defending freedom of speech and curtailing arbitrary exercises of presidential power, were undermined by judicial minimalism — a.k.a. judicial restraint — that conservatives praise more frequently than thoughtfully.