In Antonin Scalia’s thirty years on the Supreme Court, his name became a byword for social conservatism. And when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate would refuse to consider any replacement President Obama nominates it was natural that opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion were relieved. Yet Scalia’s death will have only a limited impact on the culture wars, because regarding many social issues he was already in the minority on the Court. But there is one area where the question of his replacement has huge consequences: business. As a member of the Court’s conservative majority, Scalia played a key role in moving American law in a more corporate-friendly direction. Now that majority is gone, and a huge amount rides on what happens next.
Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court has not gone as far in limiting government power over the marketplace as many conservatives would have liked. But the Roberts Court has been the most pro-business of any since the Second World War, according to a paper by the law professors Lee Epstein and William Landes and Judge Richard Posner that looked at decisions from 1946 to 2011. Its five sitting conservatives, including Scalia, ranked among the ten most business-friendly Justices of that period. The Roberts Court hasn’t just made a lot of pro-business rulings. It has taken a higher percentage of cases brought by businesses than previous courts, and it has handed down far-reaching decisions that have remade corporate regulation and law. In Citizens United, it famously ruled that corporations had free-speech rights and that many restrictions on corporate spending in elections were therefore unconstitutional. It has overturned long-standing antitrust restrictions. It has limited liability for corporate fraud and made it harder for workers to successfully sue for age and gender discrimination. It has made suing businesses and governments more difficult, especially in class-action suits.
This is no accident. Since the Reagan Administration, Republican Presidents have filled the Court with Justices steeped in the ideology of the conservative legal movement. As Brian Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt who once clerked for Scalia, told me, “Conservative Justices start from a world view that says we have too much litigation in general and it’s a sap on the economy.” Conservative nominees to the Court have been far more worried about government overreach than about corporate misbehavior. They have been skeptical of the use of class-action suits to achieve social goals or enforce regulations. And, once corporations recognized that the Court was predisposed to favor their interests, they began pursuing those interests more aggressively. As the legendary N.Y.U. law professor Arthur R. Miller told me, “The business community smelled blood and went after it.” Most notably, the Chamber of Commerce has become assiduous in pushing corporate cases to the Court.
A few of these cases have received a lot of attention, but the most consequential work of the Roberts Court in protecting corporate rights has been in cases that have gone mostly unnoticed, including a pair (A.T. & T. v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors) in which Scalia wrote the majority opinion. In these cases, both of which turned on an interpretation of a once obscure 1925 law, the Court ruled that companies could require customers to give up their right to sue in open court, with disputes to be settled by a private arbitrator instead. “These cases don’t get people’s attention the way things like abortion and same-sex marriage do,” Miller said. But, if the decisions stand, Fitzpatrick argues, “they have the potential to literally wipe out the class-action lawsuit.”
That might not sound like a bad thing—we’re always hearing that Americans are too litigious—but, in an era when regulators are routinely falling down on the job, lawsuits play a crucial role in deterring corporate misbehavior. Miller calls them a “private enforcement of public policies.” And when it comes to big corporations class-action suits are often the only kind that make any economic sense. If every individual defrauded by a company loses fifty dollars, the collective harm can be immense, but it’s not worthwhile for any single victim or lawyer to bother. Fitzpatrick says that obstacles to filing class-action lawsuits make it more likely that “companies will not be held accountable for hurting people, for cheating people, for defrauding people, for discriminating against people.” In that sense, the battle over access to the courtroom is, as Miller puts it, “a kind of class conflict between ordinary individuals and corporate power.” And in that conflict there’s no question which side Scalia was on.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that his death will change things. But many of the Roberts Court’s most important business cases were decided by a 5–4 margin, with the five conservative Justices voting as a bloc. And, as Fitzpatrick points out, “Scalia has done more than any other justice in making it difficult for consumers and employees to bring class-action suits. So his absence alone may make a difference.” There have already been signs of this: just last week, Dow Chemical settled a major class-action suit, saying that Scalia’s death increased the chances of “unfavorable outcomes for business.” It’s unlikely that Scalia will be replaced anytime soon.