After the close of the impeachment trial of President Trump this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell presented Chief Justice John Roberts with a “golden gavel.” The token is ordinarily presented to Senators who have sat in the presiding chair for 100 hours. Roberts certainly filled that minimal qualification during his many hours presiding over the trial.
I recently took Elizabeth Warren to task for her trial question that crassly challenged the legitimacy of Roberts and the Supreme Court. McConnell’s presentation can be seen as only a slightly more subtle effort to politicize the Chief Justice for partisan gain. True, Roberts did yeoman’s work in presiding over the trial, all the while maintaining his busy day job (which only involves hearing oral arguments, writing opinions, navigating the personalities and needs of his fellow Justices, and managing an entire branch of the federal government). And in a different era, the presentation of the golden gavel might be properly viewed as a sincere token of appreciation. In this deeply partisan environment, however, it primarily exploits the Chief Justice’s participation to court favor with Republicans — a misappropriation of judicial goodwill for partisan gain.
The American political scene is moving at lightning speed these days, with impeachment proceedings, the Iowa caucuses, the State of the Union, and the government’s response to the coronavirus threat all competing for our attention. But I would be remiss if I failed to note the outrageous question that Senator Elizabeth Warren posed during the impeachment trial last week.
All questions, of course, were required to be written on notecards and passed to Chief Justice Roberts, who read them aloud for response by either the House Managers or the President’s lawyers. Here is what Warren asked:
“At a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government, does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution?”
Oh, good grief. Roberts has to preside over the trial — it’s right in the Constitution. Calling into question the legitimacy of the entire Supreme Court and the Constitution during a partisan political skirmish was both cheap politics and degrading to the very foundation of American democracy. And she was roundly scolded for the stunt, from observers on all sides of the political spectrum.
This blog has chastised the President and many others for their similar tendencies to attack the courts’ legitimacy when they cannot achieve their political objectives. Let’s add Elizabeth Warren to that list as well. If she truly wants to improve Americans’ faith in government, perhaps she could start by showing appropriate respect for its institutions and design.
Many politicians, advocacy groups, and journalists have written about President Trump’s federal judicial appointments over his first three years, with the dominant narrative being that he has transformed the judiciary by appointing more judges, with more far-right leaning ideologies, than any President in history.
Russell Wheeler looks at the data underlying these assertions, and finds the story to be much more nuanced. As with everything Russell writes, the post is worth an immediate and careful read.
While you were dancing away the last hours of 2019, or perhaps just watching Ryan Seacrest, Chief Justice John Roberts was undertaking the time-honored tradition of releasing his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary under cover of darkness. This year’s theme was the judiciary’s importance in maintaining civic education, especially in an era in which fewer Americans are exposed to the brilliance of our Constitution.
I shall have more to say about this theme in a future post, but for the moment I will highlight a few of the more interesting statistics about the work of the federal courts over the past year:
- Cases argued before the Supreme Court continued to decline, with only 73 arguments taking place during October Term 2018. Compare that to 175 arguments back in OT 1984.
- In the federal district courts, civil case filings rose about 5%, and criminal filings rose about 6%.
- Bankruptcy petitions are back on the rise after a one-year drop in 2018.
That is the proposal advanced by Kyle Sammin at The Federalist. Sammin recognizes the folly of term limits for Supreme Court Justices, which would require the practical impossibility of a constitutional amendment. Instead, he suggests that we might promote more frequent turnover by requiring Justices to once again “ride circuit” — the 18th and 19th century practice of having Justices travel across the country to hear more ordinary cases during breaks in the Court’s regular term. Sammin states:
Restoring circuit duties to the Supreme Court would provide a natural way of decreasing tenure on the bench. Travel is not as difficult in 2019 as it was in 1819, but it can still be exhausting. If circuit riding had still been a part of the job, infirm justices such as William O. Douglas, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens would have left the bench before they were fully in decline. Ginsburg would likely have retired a decade ago, as many on the left wish she had. Instead, arrogance and ease lead to justices remaining in their jobs when they are not up to the tasks appointed to them.
I am intrigued by this proposal, although I am not as optimistic that the additional travel burden would put off any but the most frail Justices. The Court’s current members — even those well into their eighties — are already frequent travelers. They speak at law schools, promote their books, accept cozy summer teaching positions, and so on. Open Secrets, for example, found that in 2018 the Justices collectively took 64 trips that were paid for by others. Justice Ginsburg alone took a dozen trips to far-flung places around the world. And even though riding circuit would involve real judicial work rather that quasi-legal junkets, it seems fair to say that all the Justices truly enjoy their day jobs.
What do you think, readers?
Perhaps building on Fix the Court’s announcement of its transparency report cards for the federal courts (the timing seems more than coincidental), the Associated Press has a story describing the areas about which the Supreme Court steadfastly declines to provide basic information about its operations to the public. Some of the examples are silly but illustrative, like refuses to name the company that installed the Court’s new drapes. Others are more serious, like the lack of courtroom cameras and limited details about judicial travel and recusal.
As I noted in a recent post, the right level of court system transparency is that which is calculated to assure the public that the courts are operating in a trustworthy manner. If the Court were more transparent about its most basic operations, it would be in a better position to justify those areas in which secrecy was truly warranted.
Court transparency is essential, but it cannot be one-size-fits-all proposition. Here’s why.
Several recent articles in the popular press and academic literature have grappled with the issue of transparency. Professor Scott Dodson has written about the “open-courts norm” in the United States which, “accentuated by the First Amendment,” guarantees that criminal (and in most cases, civil) proceedings are open to the public. And, channeling Homer Simpson, Professor David Pozen has described government transparency “as the cause of, and solution to, a remarkable range of problems.” Outside the academic world, organizations such as Fix the Court are issuing their own transparency report cards to draw attention to the refusal of some courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) to broadcast oral arguments.
These commentators are on to something important. As public organizations, courts are expected to be broadly transparent about their activities. But not all forms of court transparency are the same. Some types of transparency are necessary to the courts’ survival, while other types of transparency would actually undermine the courts’ operations. It is worth considering why.
Continue reading “What is the right level of court system transparency?”