In its tumultuous 2022 term, the Supreme Court rebalanced the separation of powers, again. A tradition of self-restraint has evolved through case law and statutes when the judiciary reviews the actions of the other branches of government. The judiciary often accepts congressional judgments as to whether laws are necessary and proper and defers to executive agency interpretations of those congressional acts. The historical notion of judicial deference, however, earned criticism due to concerns about the potential unchecked decision-making power of unelected executive agency bureaucrats. The emerging alternative system might be worse.

History offers parallels. During the New Deal, a core group of Supreme Court justices known as the “Four Horsemen” often struck down agency actions or legislative acts, apparently based upon their views of economic policy. But during the “Switch in Time that Saved Nine” that followed, a changing majority of the Court exercised judicial restraint, upholding policy judgments by Congress and the executive agencies. The clock seemingly rewound in 2022, as a new conservative majority of justices declared statutes insufficient and struck down agency actions, embracing a logic akin to their New Deal predecessors. By deconstructing judicial deference, these justices can now impose the Rule of Six and selectively choose the applicable interpretive doctrine to achieve their personally preferred policy outcomes.

The fundamental question of American governance is “Who decides?”. In 2022, the unelected Supreme Court expanded its power over both unelected agency experts and elected officials. Inevitably, history will echo, and debates over court reforms will remerge. But for now, in our extraordinary era of emergencies, epidemics, and a climate crisis, six robed riders on horseback have appeared.