Ten Years of the Roberts Courts for States and Local Governments

Today 10 years ago John Glover Roberts Jr. became the 17th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Roberts Court decisions have affected everyone from average Americans to Guantanamo Bay detainees. But what about states and local governments? This article provides a brief analysis of how the Roberts Court has impacted 10 areas of interest to states and local governments: federalism, preemption, race, free speech, religion, public employment, qualified immunity, Eighth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and gun control.

As to the first five:  in more recent years the Roberts Court has decided a number of important cases involving federalism—generally federalism has fared well in these big cases. While the Court’s preemption doctrine has been thin lately the Court has decided—with mixed results—a series of cases involving drug labeling. The Roberts Court has taken a keen interest in deciding cases involving race—generally race-related decision making has fared poorly. The Roberts Court is well-known as pro-free speech (see Citizens United v. FEC) and its recent sign case is no exception (see Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona).  While the Roberts Court hasn’t decided a lot of religion cases, generally it has been tolerant of religion in public spaces.

As to the other five topics:  the Court has only decided about one public employment case every other term; all but one have been in favor of public employers. States and local governments have done well in qualified immunity cases likely because the qualified immunity standard is very deferential to government and the Court tends to not take close cases. More death penalty cases have favored the defendant than the state at least partially because Justice Kennedy tends to join his more liberal colleagues in these cases. The Roberts Court most significant contribution to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is making it clear that it isn’t going to allow new technology to undermine traditional Fourth Amendment protections. Finally, the Roberts Court gun control cases were in one word: landmark.

How the Roberts Courts will decide cases over the next 10 years for state and local government—and everyone else—may be largely in the hands of future Justices who will be appointed over the next 10 years.