Senate Democrats to boycott Barrett confirmation vote, replacing themselves with cardboard cutouts

Please tell me this is a joke:

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee plan to boycott Thursday’s committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination as a protest against Republican efforts to rush her through before the election.

The plan hasn’t been finalized yet, according to a Democratic aide, but Democrats are preparing to fill their empty seats with poster-sized photos of people who would be hurt by Barrett potentially casting a deciding vote against the Affordable Care Act. These would be the same pictures of people Democrats had on display during Barrett’s confirmation hearing last week.

Sadly, it appears to be real. Rather than upholding their Constitutional responsibility to vote a Supreme Court nominee, Senate Democrats are planning to replace themselves with cardboard cutouts for cheap political gain. In doing so, they will:

    • Send the message to undecided voters, just days before a major election, that they are not serious about their fundamental responsibilities;
    • Sow the ground for Republicans to pull a similar stunt (perhaps with cardboard cutouts of aborted fetuses) the next time the Democrats have a Senate majority and a Supreme Court nominee; and
    • Provide some free advertising for South Park and Bud Light.

My goodness. What have we become?

A senator beclowns herself at a Judiciary Committee hearing (again). Facebook rushes to her aid.

I don’t usually comment on the culture wars, but every once in a while they connect directly to the operation and interdependence of the judiciary. This week brought an unfortunate example.

This blog has chronicled some of the inappropriate questions and comments from Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) in the course of her service as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — comments that have drawn sharp criticism even from members of her own party. Among other things, Senator Hirono finds it proper to ask Catholic judicial nominees about their private religious affiliations and practices, as if membership in a church or the Knights of Columbus has any demonstrable impact on a person’s ability to handle the solemn duties of judicial office.

Hirono’s aggressive disgressions were on display during last week’s confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. First, Hirono asked Barrett — a widely-respected judge, law professor, and mother of seven — if she had ever sexually assaulted anyone. Hirono followed this obscene question with a loud “tsk-tsk”ing of Barrett for her use of the term “sexual preference” during the hearing. Even though Judge Barrett immediately apologized for any unintended offense, Hirono proceeded with a baseless attempt to brand Barrett as a homophobe. (The meaning of the term is certainly in flux and is offensive to many, but it remains in use by, among others, Joe Biden.)

Questions and comments like Hirono’s — which erode public confidence in the court system without any concomitant positive contribution — are cause for civic despair. But in America, such despair often manifests itself as gentle mockery. And the Babylon Bee, a Christian humor site, came through with the following satirical story:

Senator Hirono Demands ACB Be Weighed Against A Duck To See If She Is A Witch.

This may not be the funniest thing I have read in my life, but it’s certainly good for a chuckle — especially for the large number of readers who instantly recognize the direct allusion to “Monty Python’s Holy Grail.” It’s not surprising, then, that the Bee piece was shared widely on social media, including Facebook.

But in a stunning bit of self-importance and tone-deafness this week, Facebook pulled down the article and demonetized the Bee’s own Facebook page, on the spurious grounds that the article “incites violence.” After an appeal and manual review, Facebook has apparently chosen to stand by its decision.

So Americans lose twice. First, a Senator squanders an important opportunity to substantively question a Supreme Court nominee in the name of advancing identity politics. And then, a long tradition of satire is crushed by a social media giant on the weakest of pretenses. Score another point for civic despair. 

In-person jury trials to resume in Brooklyn

For the first time in seven months, Brooklyn courts will begin to hold jury trials inside courthouses. A number of safety measures have been implemented, including temperature checks, plexiglass screens, and upgraded air filtration systems.

During the last several months, a number of courts worldwide held jury trials outdoors or in large, socially distanced venues. As winter approaches (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), trials will have no choice but to move indoors. Hopefully they prove to be safe and successful.

On Biden, the Court, and what voters “deserve to know”

Joe Biden’s refusal last week to state whether he supports the Court-packing scheme advanced by several prominent members of his own party, and his insistence that voters “don’t deserve” to know where he stands on the issue, has drawn understandable scrutiny. Several commentators have attempted to dissect both the political cynicism behind the proposal and Biden’s strategy for declining to comment on it. (In particular, I recommend the first dozen minutes of this Commentary podcast as well as this op-ed by Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal).

I want to focus here on what the kerfuffle means for Biden post-election, since it seems very likely that he will win the Presidency next month. As Baker points out (behind a paywall, unfortunately), “even Mr. Biden—something of a procedural conservative—must be aware how grotesque the idea [of court packing] is. The prospect of a high court turned into an adjunct of the executive and legislative branches, staffed by black-gowned, forelock-tugging accessories to untrammeled political excess, must surely give him pause.”

Baker is right. Biden is too steeped in the Washington politics of the last fifty years to not be a traditionalist on this issue. Indeed, he has had three decades to reveal himself as a disruptor of court structure, both as a high-ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as Vice-President. To be sure, he has spearheaded legislation that has changed court operations, and he bears heavy responsibility for setting the tone of current Supreme Court confirmations with his behavior during the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. But he has nevertheless conducted himself according to the standards of twentieth-century American politics: play hard, and don’t kick the game board over just because you think you’re losing.

The extremists in his party disagree, and are embracing the vision of converting the Court into an arm of the progressive movement by brute political force. This  development should concern all who believe in preserving the delicate balance between court independence and interdependence, and indeed the proposal is playing very poorly with most voters. (Perhaps in a nod to this reality, Biden himself finally stated that he was “not a fan” of court packing in a radio interview on Monday.)

Progressive extremists will certainly put pressure on a Biden Administration to force the court-packing policy into existence, especially if Democrats win the Senate in November.  And of course Biden, like any President, would feel some compulsion to support the legislative agenda from a same-party Congress. But some of the more senior legislative members of his own party recognize the inherent dangers (political and structural) of court-packing, and would likely try to to slow down any movement, especially in the Senate. Moreover, there is no significant reason to believe that his White House would simply be a vessel for extreme progressives. Biden is a wily veteran in Washington. No matter how he may project on the camoaign trail, he surely knows how to wield the levers of power behind closed doors.

Bottom line: A Biden Administration will not support court packing and will try to deemphasize it. Look for Biden to lean on Nancy Pelosi, and others who have been burned by aligning themselves with their intraparty radicals, for assistance in tamping down the extremism. Biden’s position may prove to be a last stand, depending on the growth of the radical progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and court-packing may remain as an issue in 2024. But a lot will happen between now and then, and the short-term likelihood of this terrible policy proposal coming to fruition is probably slimmer than it appears.

Judicial evaluations and the retention voter

I was interviewed extensively for this piece in Denverite about Colorado’s judicial performance evaluation (JPE) program. The primary takeaway is that voters should feel very comfortable with a program that works so hard to evaluate judges on the process (as opposed to the outcomes) of judging.

A number of states have excellent JPE programs, but not enough. Done properly, JPE benefits voters, the general public, and most of all the judges themselves. It should be part and parcel of every state and federal judicial program.

Webinar on funding for court access during pandemic

The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a webinar last month with an eye toward helping courts and civil justice stakeholders secure funding to assist with court access during the COVID-19 pandemic. The details, including the link to the webinar recording, can be found here.

Jurisdiction stripping is back, this time from the left

Here’s something I wrote about federal judicial accountability:

Many commentators have praised Article III’s guarantees of life tenure and freedom from salary cuts as essential tools to preserve judicial independence. Far less frequently have the commentators explored the impact of these guarantees on judicial accountability. Rather, until relatively recently, the prevalent assumption (dating back to the original Federalist debates) has been that “the perceived need for judicial accountability to counterbalance life tenure, nonreducible salaries, and judicial review, began and ended with the impeachment mechanism.” A reexamination of that assumption, however, has been sparked in the early twenty-first century both by academic commentators and some in Congress. The last ten years alone have produced a host of creative— sometimes outrageous—alternatives to promote federal judicial accountability through (in most cases) a combination of executive and legislative power and populist sentiment. Some such proposals are effectively substance-neutral, most notably replacing life tenure with fixed, lengthy judicial terms. Other proposals, however, are aimed at the substance of judicial decision-making, among them several schemes to strip federal courts of jurisdiction to hear certain types of cases. Prominent politicians have even occasionally threatened impeachment—or worse—for federal judges as a punishment for decisions they did not find appropriate. Contributing to the tenor of politically “accountable” judges is a federal judicial appointment process that has become increasingly partisan in the last two decades.

This paragraph was part of the introduction to an article I co-wrote twelve years ago, and yet it feels surprisingly fresh. The difference is that while many of the efforts to subject the court to populism and political sentiment a decade ago came from conservatives, today those same views are being embraced by the liberal establishment. Countless bad ideas — Court packing, term limits, and the like — continue to emerge, with the most recent being the rediscovery of jurisdiction-stripping. Bloomberg Businessweek explains:

Some liberal proponents believe jurisdiction stripping could help Democrats shield bold future legislation from damaging court battles. In theory a Democratic Congress could pass a health-care plan or a Green New Deal with a provision stipulating that the legislation lies outside the bounds of Supreme Court review.

Under variations of the jurisdiction-stripping proposal, Democratic lawmakers could also limit the ability of lower courts to review legislation or could confine legal challenges to geographic regions where courts are generally sympathetic.

Let’s be clear about what’s happening. Today’s politicians, unable or unwilling to do the hard work of compromise and dealmaking, are leaving the courts to make sense of hastily written and sloppy laws. When lawmakers don’t like the results, they propose extreme “fixes” which would deny the courts the ability to do even their core adjudicative work. This is wrong, whether it comes from the right or the left, and is symptomatic of how awful our political class — and their academic enablers — have become.

Judicial Watch head nominated for D.C. judicial commission

Shortly before entering the hospital for treatment for COVID-19 last week, President Trump nominated Tom Fitton, the head of Judicial Watch, to join the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure. The Commission oversees the District of Columbia judiciary (essentially D.C.’s equivalent of state judges) and has the power to remove judges for misconduct, as well as physical or mental incapacitation.

Fitton has been outspoken in opposition to the Mueller probe and critical of the Obama Administration, and plainly has ingratiated himself with the President. While Trump has the authority to nominate anyone he likes to the commission, the open partisanship of this choice will do little to build public confidence in the fairness or impartiality of the Commission.

Turley on court packing

Jonathan Turley has been a voice for sanity among legal commentators during the tumultuous past year. His new op-ed at The Hill, which looks at the dangers and irony of Democrats’ court-lacking schemes, continues his tradition of strong and reasonable analysis. A snippet:

For the scheme to pack the Supreme Court proposed by Kamala Harris and others to work, there must be some kind of litmus test. Democrats have pledged to add new justices to ensure a bench that will vote to uphold or overturn cases as desired. Absent such promises, the scheme is a futile exercise. The whole point is to force outcomes like voting to uphold Roe. This rationale has reached truly dystopian levels, with former White House counsel John Dean insisting that, by creating a new ideological majority, Democrats would remove politics from the Supreme Court.

Litmus tests and the idea to pack the bench would not honor Ginsburg. They would instead destroy the Supreme Court she loved. It would obliterate an institution that has preserved the stability and continuity of our country. The Supreme Court has performed this vital role based on its legitimacy and authority with Americans that will evaporate if Democrats conduct litmus tests or pack the bench.

The whole article is well worth the read.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Evolution of General Jurisdiction

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Among the potential nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing was Barbara Lagoa, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Like the eventual nominee, Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, press reports labeled Lagoa a “conservative jurist,” supported by statements from progressive organizations like Alliance for Justice, which asserted that Lagoa’s decisions “raise concerns that she will side with the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyday Americans.”

One problem with this statement is its premise—namely, that cases in which corporate interests prevail necessarily are the result of a judicial predisposition, rather than the application of controlling legal principles to the facts at hand. Though the results in some cases may reflect motivated reasoning, it remains that judges, both state and federal, in the main seek to honor their oaths to apply the law to the facts without fear or favor. There may be no better example of this commitment to the evenhanded administration of justice than Justice Ginsburg herself, as she was responsible for a series of civil procedure decisions over the past decade that effectively benefited corporate interests at the expense of individuals.

To be sure, it is unlikely you will find Ginsburg’s decisions on the principle of general jurisdiction in any compilation of her most important work as a judge. For example, a new collection curated by Corey Brett Schneider for his Penguin Liberty imprint, Decisions and Dissents of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, features her majority opinions, dissents, and appellate briefs from cases involving gender equality and women’s rights, reproductive freedom, and voting and civil rights—with nary a mention of the pathmarking decisions on federal civil procedure she consistently wrote during her time on the high court.

Continue reading “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Evolution of General Jurisdiction”