I first started reading Slate when I was in law school. I don't recall how I found out about it, but the feature that caught my attention was "Supreme Court Dispatches." The dispatches were a weekly feature that would provide a report on what happened at the Supreme Court oral argument that week. Eventually, the dispatches stopped coming out every week and now only come out on well-publicized cases.
I thought about the Supreme Court Dispatches yesterday when the various media reports came out about how Obamacare is doomed based on yesterday's oral argument. For example, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says that the individual mandate is "doomed" based on how the oral argument went. Ezra Klien of the Washington Post suggested that the apparently inevitable striking down of Obamacare might not have happened if Justice Kagen was still Solicitor General.
Predicting how the Supreme Court would rule based on oral argument was a frequent part of the Supreme Court Dispatches. It was also frequently wrong. For example, when reporting on Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee et. al., Dahlia Lithwick predicts that the poor kindergartner who was sexually harassed on a school bus is going to lose. Then the opinion came out and the student won in a unanimous opinion. Ms. Lithwick's colleague, Emily Bazelon, wrote a piece predicting that the employee in CBOCS West, Inc., v. Humpries, would lose his retaliation claim because the Supreme Court's "right flank could use this case not only to block suits for retaliation like Humphries', but also to set the stage to make it ever harder to sue for discrimination under other laws." The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in the employee's favor. Ms. Lithwick predicted that the "the most business-friendly Supreme Court in decades" would rule for big business in Wyeth v. Levine. Instead, big business lost a 6-3 decision. Ms. Lithwick also predicted that historians would use the case of Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding as an example of "not getting it" because the oral argument so badly for the student who was subjected to a strip search because she brought prescription-strength ibuprofen to school. The student won a 8-1 decision.
The point of this post isn't that Ms. Lithwick, Mr. Toobin, and Ms. Bazelon are terrible at predicting what the Supreme Court will do (at least that is not the intended point). Instead, my point is that it is silly to try to predict how a case will come out based on oral argument and people should ignore any predictions based on oral argument. All oral argument does is demonstrate that some of the justices like to watch lawyers respond to tough questions (and make jokes). Fans of Obamacare (the statute, not the word) should not despair that the law will be struck down and foes of Obamacare should not be too encouraged by the fact that the Solicitor General faced some tough questions. I am biased, but I still think the best prediction on the outcome of the case was made almost two years ago.