Conservatives need to get real about the Supreme Court

Social conservatives in particular shouldn’t expect much from the Supreme Court. Every four years, Republican presidential candidates — especially ones who aren’t that socially conservative themselves — tell them they should put whatever policy differences they have aside because a Republican president will appoint conservative judges.

That’s true, but the impact is much more limited than advertised. Elections matter and so do judges. If Al Gore and John Kerry had been nominating justices instead of George W. Bush, Hobby Lobby would certainly have gone the wrong way. Without the justices nominated by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, both Supreme Court decisions on partial-birth abortion would have been unfavorable to bans, not just one.

But on the biggest questions that have motivated social conservatives, from school prayer to abortion to gay marriage, conservative judges have at best been able to nibble at the edges of liberal precedent. From Planned Parenthood v. Casey, upholding Roe v. Wade, to Friday’s decision discovering a constitutional right to gay marriage, Supreme Courts dominated by Republican appointees have frequently entrenched liberal court decisions. What major socially liberal decision has ever been overturned, as opposed to merely curtailed somewhat?