The political calculus: Who WILL be the Supreme Court nominee?

Third in a series of posts about the politics of filling the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In my last post, I suggested that purely from the standpoint of conventional political strategy, the President should nominate Sixth Circuit Judge Joan Larsen to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Larsen is reportedly on the short list, so it’s certainly possible.

But we also know that the President’s political instincts rarely align with convention. And if he wants a public fight instead of a better chance of an electoral win, he has other options.

I think he will go with the current consensus front-runner, Amy Coney Barrett. And he’ll do it not because of her qualifications — which are excellent — but because her nomination is likely to create the most short-term political chaos.

Continue reading “The political calculus: Who WILL be the Supreme Court nominee?”

The political calculus: Who SHOULD be the Supreme Court nominee?

Second in a series of posts about the politics of filling the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In an earlier post, I attempted to flesh out the political landscape surrounding any potential Supreme Court nomination. With President Trump announcing his plan to name a nominee at the end of this week, I now turn to whom he should nominate from a strategic standpoint.

I note at the outset that this is a question of politics, not whether the nominee is necessarily the best fit for the Court. While all the likely nominees are well-qualified on paper, the President’s calculus is not (nor has it ever been) about the Court’s best interests. It is about making political hay. And that is the lens through which I approach the question.

I also leave aside the question of whether the President should decline to send a nomination until after the election. That is, of course, the overarching partisan game, which I explored previously. I assume here that the President will make a nomination within the timeline he has provided, that Senator Mitch McConnell will do everything he can to bring that nomination to a vote before November, and that Senate Democrats will do everything in their power to avoid that vote.

With that in mind, the most conventionally strategic nominee is Sixth Circuit judge Joan Larsen. As I have detailed elsewhere, Judge Larsen is a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and well-qualified judge from Michigan, a political swing state which will play a big role in the upcoming Presidential election. Beyond her qualifications, her nomination poses practical problems for Democrats, who do not want to be seen as opposing a female nominee — especially one who sailed through the Senate just three years ago when she was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Larsen is also popular among voters in her home state, where she was resoundingly reelected to the state supreme court in 2016.

By nominating Judge Larsen, the President would score a political victory no matter what happens during the confirmation process. If the Senate confirms her, Trump can claim victory, charge up his base, and score valuable political points among swing voters in Michigan. If Senate Democrats manage to forestall a vote, Trump can turn that delay into a high-profile campaign issue, deflecting attention from the Biden campaign’s efforts to focus the election on COVID and Trump’s personal behavior.

Judge Larsen is reportedly on the five-person short list under consideration by the President, so her nomination is very possible. And while the qualities of the nominee are secondary to scoring political points — at least to this President — her confirmation would be a positive for the country and the Court. There is little doubt in my mind that she would make an excellent, thoughtful, respected Supreme Court Justice.*

So who will be the Supreme Court nominee? I offer some thoughts in the next post.

* CNN apparently agrees. In a photo caption yesterday, they already referred to Judge Larsen as Justice Larsen.

The mortifying state of our Supreme Court confirmation politics

The first of a series of posts about the politics of filling the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

So here we are, not even five years removed from the embarrassing political melee that followed the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the same movie is playing out in even more absurd fashion.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is working the Republican back benches to ensure a yes vote for the President’s Supreme Court nominee — never mind that there is, as of yet, no nominee to vote on. This is the same Senator McConnell who refused to even hold a hearing for then-nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 on the flimsy pretext that it was too late into a election year. To call McConnell’s reversal hypocritical is an insult to hypocrisy.

Remarkably, the Democrats have acquitted themselves even more poorly. After hectoring the American public in 2016 with the smug insistence that the Senate must vote on the Garland nomination (using the Twitter hashtag #DoYourJob), and after four years of accusing the Republicans of “stealing” the seat by not holding a hearing for Garland, the Democrats now declare —with no apparent sense of irony — that they will do everything possible to prevent a vote on the as-yet-unnamed nominee. The charge has been led, most distressingly, by the Democrats’ own Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who previously pledged to shirk her Senate duties by refusing in advance to vote for any Trump appellate court nominee, and who now promises an extended vacancy crisis in connection with her efforts to raise campaign funds

How did we get here? Continue reading “The mortifying state of our Supreme Court confirmation politics”

Fifth Circuit reverses holding that Louisiana’s judicial elections disenfranchise minority voters

Back in 2014, a number of groups led by the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, alleging that the state’s “at large” system for electing judges systematically disenfranchised minority voters, in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs sought to replace the “at large” system with five geographic districts which, they argued, would increase the likelihood that a non-white judge would be elected.

After a lengthy pretrial process and a highly publicized bench trial, U.S. District Judge James Brady concluded in August 2017 that the “at large” system was unconstitutional, and ordered the parties to come up with an acceptable solution involving specific judicial election districts. When the parties were unable to do so, Judge Brady appointed a special master in December 2018 to draw a new district map.

Meanwhile, the defendants (essentially the State of Lousiana, through its Attorney General) appealed Judge Brady’s decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the end of June, that court reversed Judge Brady, concluding that the plaintiffs had not met their burden under Thornburg v. Gingles and related Fifth Circuit precedent. Gingles requires that a party challenging an at-large voting system on behalf of a protected class of citizens demonstrate that “(1) the group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district; (2) it is politically cohesive; and (3) the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.” Continue reading “Fifth Circuit reverses holding that Louisiana’s judicial elections disenfranchise minority voters”

Another Senator joins the federal judicial nomination Hall of Shame

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said in an interview that week that “I will vote only for those Supreme Court nominees who have explicitly acknowledged that Roe v. Wade is wrongly decided.” He added, “By explicitly acknowledged, I mean on the record and before they were nominated.” Hawley championed his position as a way of correcting “an unbridled act of judicial imperialism,” the point “at which the modern Supreme Court felt it no longer had to follow the Constitution.”

Hawley is of course entitled to his views on the abortion debate, but his explicit refusal to vote for anyone who does not pass his narrow litmus test represents a direct assault on the Third Branch of government. The percentage of the Supreme Court’s cases concerning abortion are miniscule compared to the wide range of other matters it hears — matters that evidently are of no moment to Senator Hawley. Whether he is fully sincere in his pledge, or just making a political play, his ex ante refusal to even consider qualified nominees for the Court is a wholesale deriliction of his duty as a United States Senator.

Sadly, Hawley is not alone. This blog has taken to task Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) for her equally repugnant vow not to vote for any of the President’s nominees, and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) for her inappropriate questioning of judicial nominees.

Harris in particular has ambitions for a national political role. But such open hostility to the judiciary, and the readiness to treat a co-equal branch of government as a political plaything, should disqualify Hawley, Harris, and Hirono from any further national office.

A renewed effort to create regional judicial elections in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania state senator Ryan Aument reintroduced legislation this week to elect the state’s appellate judges by region. The goal is to assure fairness of geographic representation within the court system:

Aument noted that a cursory review of Pennsylvania’s Superior Court and Commonwealth Court judge compliment in 2018 when this proposal was first developed shows that more than half of all the members of those courts were from only two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, which only represent 21% of the state’s population.

He also pointed out that five of the seven Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices, or over two-thirds of the justices, were from Allegheny or Philadelphia counties, leaving 79% of the state’s population unrepresented on Pennsylvania’s highest court.

I understand the goal of the bill, but it misses the larger point that Pennsylvania’s judicial election structure itself is highly flawed. As I noted earlier this year, “geographic representation could be achieved much more fairly and efficiently through a commission-based appointment system than through the messy (and litigation-begging) process of drawing election districts in the legislature.”

More on California’s relaxed judicial ethics rules

I have a new post up at the IAALS blog that looks more deeply at the changes to California’s Code of Judicial Ethics, which permit judges to comment on pending cases in the context of a recall or retention election. Here’s a taste:

The amended rule allows judges who are under electoral attack to explain and contextualize their decisions to the voters directly. This is especially important for decisions rendered orally from the bench, which—like the rulings that ultimately felled Judges Corey and Persky—were not supplemented with a written account of the judge’s thought process. If a controversial decision was mandated or constrained by existing law, or by formal rules of evidence or procedure, the judge is now free to explain those circumstances to the public. A nuanced legal explanation will still struggle to compete for voter attention in comparison to a simple hashtag, but at least a judge will have some opportunity to advance his or her position directly.

At the same time, by inviting judicial comment on pending cases, the new rule places the overall integrity of the judiciary at greater risk. Traditional rules of judicial conduct prohibit judges from even approaching behavior that might be considered inappropriate for a neutral jurist. Judges, for example, are directed to avoid the appearance of impropriety, to disqualify themselves if there is anything above a de minimis personal interest in the outcome of a case, and to conduct extra-judicial activities so as to “minimize the risk of conflict with obligations of judicial office.” And, of course, judges are traditionally barred from discussing a pending case, lest they compromise the fairness of the proceeding. By consistently erring on the side of impartiality, judicial conduct rules avoid close calls and send a message that judicial integrity is of the utmost importance. The new rule blurs the line between appropriate and inappropriate judicial speech, and may have long-term erosive effects on public faith in the judiciary.

Please read the whole thing!

An interesting overview of the Japanese judiciary

I am no expert in the Japanese legal system, but I was intrigued by this article (in translation, from Nippon.com) which sets out some of the history and mechanics of the country’s judicial system. In particular, I was struck by how strongly the modern judiciary has been influenced by American occupation after World War II, both positively (adoption of the political question doctrine, overt commitment to judicial independence) and less positively (e.g., direct American interference in high profile cases in the immediate postwar years). I was similarly struck by the Japan’s embrace of bureaucratic approach to judging that is common in civil law systems across Europe and Latin America.

A good, relatively short read.

 

California approves plan to allow judges to comment on their own (and others’) decisions

The California Supreme Court has approved a change to its Code of Judicial Ethics, which would allow state judges to publicly comment on pending proceedings, including their own decisions and decisions of their colleagues. The most important change is to Canon 3B(9) and associated comments. The amended Canon now reads, in pertinent part:

In connection with a judicial election or recall campaign, this canon does not prohibit any judge from making a public comment about a pending proceeding, provided (a) the comment would not reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of the proceeding, and (b) the comment is about the procedural, factual, or legal basis of a decision about which a judge has been criticized during the election or recall campaign.

These changes have been in the works for some time, a reaction to the ugly 2018 campaign to recall state judge Aaron Persky. The sentiment is understandable, given that judges who produce unpopular decisions are sitting ducks in an election when they cannot even respond to unfair or oversimplified attacks by their antagonists. Permitting judges to at least clarify the context of their decisions, or to comment on the overall qualifications of a fellow judge whose career is being reduced to a single decision, may prevent voters from removing a judge rashly.

But there is still reason to be worried about whether this change will work for the better. Now that judges are permitted to comment on pending proceedings, they have less of an excuse to not comment when pressed by the media or an election opponent. Some judges might feel pressure to comment even when they do not want to do so. Others might choose not to comment and find themselves under pressure to justify that decision. Put differently, in some ways the original canon was cleaner because judges had no choice but to remain silent. Now they have more freedom, and that can be a blessing and a curse.

The new rules go into effect July 1. It will be a development worth watching.

 

A reverse judicial cascade!

I have written before about judicial nomination cascades: situations in which a sitting judge is appointed to another court, leaving another vacancy on the judge’s original court. Usually, cascades move in a single direction: trial judges are appointed to appellate courts, or intermediate appellate judges to courts of last resort.

But this week, Massachusetts initiated a rare reverse judicial cascade when Justice Edward McDonough, Jr., who is currently on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, was nominated for a seat on the Massachusetts Superior Court, which is the state’s general jurisdiction trial court. Judge McDonough previously served on the Superior Court from 2013 to 2017.

Judge McDonough’s long career as a trial lawyer suggests a high level of comfort with the trial bench, and it is inspiring to see judges who prefer the hurly-burly of the trial courts over the more sanitized settings of the appeals court. Assuming the appointment is successful, it will be interesting to see who Governor Charlie Baker nominates for the vacancy created on the Appeals Court.