Supreme Court leak investigation ends with no culprit identified

Portico_-US_Supreme_Court_Building

The full statement from the Court, with the Marshal’s report and an additional statement from Michael Chertoff (as an independent analyst for the Court), can be found here. The key takeaway: “the [Marshal’s] team has to date been unable to identify a person responsible [for the leak] by a preponderance of the evidence.”

Preponderance of the evidence is, of course, the lowest standard of proof, equivalent to a likelihood of just over 50 percent. The failure of the investigation to identify any specific person under the preponderance standard is a clear signal that the Court does not ever expect to find the perpetrator.

This meek result is almost as stunning as the leak itself. And it carries several important consequences:

    • The Supreme Court’s reputation takes another hit. Leave aside the cynical partisan attacks based on one or two case outcomes. The Court itself has too many self-inflicted wounds in recent years: its refusal to adopt a Code of Ethics, its refusal to broadcast video of its arguments, and so on. Increasingly, the Supreme Court looks like a 19th century institution that has been uncomfortably transported to the 21st century. The failure to find the source of the leak makes the entire institution look inept.
    • Other court systems will suffer reputational fallout as well. Most people do not carefully distinguish between the Supreme Court and other courts or court systems in their daily lives.  Just as a strong reputation for the apex court will have benefits for other courts downstream, a reputational blow to the nation’s highest court will have the public thinking a bit more dismally about court systems in their own localities as well.
    • The Supreme Court will necessarily be a less open place to work. The Marshal’s report recommended–and former Secretary Chertoff endorsed–a number of measures to assure that a leak like this does not happen again. Many of these recommendations involving restricting access to draft opinions and other key documents, and instituting greater confidentiality measures. Fewer people will see drafts, and fewer opportunities will be available for reflection. There will still be prestige in clerking or otherwise staffing at the Supreme Court, but one has to wonder whether some qualified candidates will pass on the opportunity if it means giving up one’s cell phone when walking into the building and knowing that someone is always looking over your shoulder.
    • The Court will have to contend with an internal culture of distrust, at least for the foreseeable future. Just as potential law clerks and staff will bristle at being watched more closely, the Justices themselves will ask whether it’s worth bringing in so many unproven people for a year or two. The increased security will also necessarily make it harder for Justices to hammer out issues among themselves, whether directly or through law clerks as intermediaries.
    • The Court is likely to become even more resistant to sensible transparency proposals. As this blog has routinely documented, both legislators and the general public have put forward a variety of proposals to make the Supreme Court’s work more transparent and accessible. These proposals include better recusal practices and livestreaming oral arguments. But now that the Court is feeling on the defensive, it seems highly unlikely that it will voluntarily accede to transparency measures. This doesn’t mean that transparency measures are not coming eventually–I am confident that they are–but only that the Court will try to delay introducing them until it feels overwhelming pressure to do so.

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