Samuel Alito had the most successful term of any U.S. Supreme Court justice last year, when measured by 5-4 opinions authored, according to Baylor University President Kenneth Starr.
"He may not be your MVP, but he was the term's MVP," Starr, the former D.C. Circuit judge and Whitewater prosecutor, told a roomful of California lawyers at the State Bar convention Saturday in Monterey.
Starr and UC-Davis constitutional law professor Vikram Amar broke down recent developments at the court, with the two agreeing that Justice John Paul Stevens' departure won't have as much impact as some observers have suggested.
When he clerked at the court in the early 1990s, Amar said, he didn't think of Stevens as a liberal or a leader. Rather, he regarded him as intellectually independent, and more of a maverick than a coalition builder. Plus the current court is "the most intellectually confident" he's seeing during his career, meaning it's unlikely there are any votes to be wooed via charm offensive.
Starr noted that Stevens, who served on the court for 35 years, succeeded William Douglas, who served for 36. "So if history is any guide," Starr half-joked, Stevens' successor, Elena Kagan, "will serve until the year 2045." He applauded President Barack Obama for reaching outside the federal courts for a nominee, a move he said was overdue.
Looking ahead, both academics expressed doubt that recently enacted health care legislation would be struck down by the court. Starr said he expected a fight within the court, but that right now the vote would probably be for upholding.
Amar noted that the two big federalism decisions of the Rehnquist court, striking down the Violence Against Women Act and a gun-free zone around schools, didn't implicate interstate commerce as broadly as health insurance does. While he said he wasn't predicting what the court would do, "if they strike this down that will be somthing very differnt than the Rehnquist court ever did."