Once upon a time, Carolene Products provided an inspiring charter for the exercise of the power of judicial review. Intervene to correct flaws in the political process, Carolene instructed courts, but otherwise allow American democracy to operate unimpeded. In this Article, I use the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Rucho v Common Cause to argue that the current Court flips Carolene on its head. It both fails to act when the political process is malfunctioning and intercedes to block other actors from ameliorating American democracy. Rucho is the quintessential example of judicial apathy when, under Carolene, judicial engagement was sorely needed. The Court acknowledged that partisan gerrymandering offends democratic values like majoritarianism, responsiveness, and participation. But the Court didn’t take the obvious next step under Carolene and hold that extreme gerrymanders are unlawful. Instead it went in exactly the opposite direction, announcing that partisan gerrymandering claims are categorically nonjusticiable.
Rucho, however, is only the tip of the current Court’s anti-Carolene spear. Past cases have compounded (and future cases will likely exacerbate) the democratic damage by preventing non-judicial institutions from addressing defects in the political process. Looking back, the Court’s campaign finance decisions have struck down regulation after regulation aimed at curbing the harms of money in politics. Looking forward, the Court may well nullify the main non-judicial response to gerrymandering: independent redistricting commissions adopted through voter initiatives. What can possibly explain this doctrinal pattern? Conventional modes of analysis — originalism, judicial restraint, respect for precedent, and so on — all fail as justifications. They’re riddled by too many exceptions to be persuasive. What does seem to run like a red thread through the current Court’s rulings, though, is partisanship. The anti-Carolene Court may spurn pro-democratic judicial review in part because, at this historical juncture, it often happens to be pro-Democratic.