Judicial qualifications and the modern political calculus

As Jordy Singer points out in Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now, his response to my recent post, “[i]n states in with nominating commissions, conscientious governors, and reasonable judicial turnover,” the kind of careful judicial selection practiced in Massachusetts and Colorado “is possible. But it doesn’t work that way in most states, and certainly not at the federal level.”

I don’t disagree with this assessment. One difference, though, is that, while it doesn’t work in most states as it does in Massachusetts or Colorado due to the state’s constitutional or statutory design, the process of judicial selection at the federal level—at least, at the level of the Supreme Court—is almost purely a matter of choice. Indeed, it is most often a matter of political choice. And while, realistically, the qualifications of potential Supreme Court justices may not be changing any time soon, we should not give up on the normative arguments for such change. This is not to suggest that the politics will eventually become less important in the selection of Supreme Court justices, but that, within the realm of political choice, Presidents and Senate majorities might one day think beyond the limited qualifications that today’s nominees uniformly possess—qualifications essentially defined by pedigree.

Singer notes the incentives for the President “to nominate a sitting judge with sterling credentials,” which deters the opposition from “play[ing] games with the confirmation of such a highly qualified candidate.” His cites as an example Harriet Miers, President George W. Bush’s original choice to replace retiring associate justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2005. Miers was White House Counsel; her prior experience included many years as a corporate lawyer in a large firm, and she served as the head of both the Dallas Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas, as well as chair of the Texas Lottery Commission and as an elected member of the Dallas City Council—a record of accomplishment and service of which any lawyer would rightly be proud, and a record of experience that might reasonably be thought to inform many issues that might come before the U.S. Supreme Court in areas such as municipal law, the practice of law, civil procedure, and the regulation of lawyers.

On the other hand, Miers never served as a judge in any state or federal court, or taught as a law school professor, or litigated constitutional cases before any court, much less the U.S. Supreme Court. Oh, and she earned her law degree at Southern Methodist University. But the absence of typically elite credentials did not fuel Democratic opposition to her nomination; rather, that opposition came from within, as pressure from Republicans within and without the Senate ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of her candidacy. At least one conservative commentator put a fine point on her nomination: “The Supreme Court is an elite institution,” Charles Krauthammer wrote. “It is not one of the ‘popular’ branches of government.”

Interestingly, what was known at the time of Miers’s views on many of the issues of most concern to a Republican President suggests she would have consistently voted with majorities to curtail the right to choose, embrace the right to bear arms, and respect state sovereignty. Indeed, it is far from clear how many cases would have turned out very differently had she, and not O’Connor’s eventual successor, Samuel Alito, made it to the Court.

The elitism that contributed to the downfall of the Miers nomination was not the result of any constitutional or statutory rule. It simply reflected a modern political calculation, one that has hardened into an expectation. Any President—or Senate Judiciary Committee—could insist that it be changed. And change may come, should political majorities coalesce around the belief that the lives and experiences of Supreme Court justices should not be so distant from those of most American lawyers—or, indeed, most Americans—as to cast a shadow on the legitimacy of judicial decision-making that affects every one of us.

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