The cravenness of Democratic “Court reform” proposals

The Supreme Court is doing its job and winning public support. Some Democrats are despondent.

Last week, The Hill published an op-ed by by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, lamenting the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on abortion rights, immigration, and workplace discrimination. Each of these cases resulted in what might be termed a liberal victory, in the sense that the outcome was in line with prevailing left-wing views in the United States. One might think of this as a cause for celebration among the Democratic establishment. But not for Mellman, who with a tinge of sadness concluded that “by refusing to inflame passions further, [Chief] Justice Roberts may stem the tide and accomplish the coveted goal of his GOP critics — preserving the Court’s current conservative majority.”

A second op-ed, also published in The Hill (on the same day, in fact!) took a more academic tone but made essentially the same point as Mellman. Law professors Kent Greenfield and Adam Winkler argued that the Chief Justice’s “moves to the middle will likely assist conservatives in the long run by dooming plans by Democrats the pack the Supreme Court with justices.” 

Both articles expose the long game the Democrats have been playing with the Supreme Court since the failed Merrick Garland nomination in 2016. It is a game to punish Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump by radically restructuring the Court itself. And it is a game that has been undermined by the Court’s own decency and independence.
Continue reading “The cravenness of Democratic “Court reform” proposals”

Lat on Supreme Court telephonic arguments

It’s so great to have David Lat back with a guest post at Above the Law — not only because it’s a sign that he is recovering from his serious COVID-19 scare a few weeks ago, but also because he always adds desperately needed sensibility to a blog that has become virtually unreadable since he handed over the full-time reins years ago.

Lat comments on the recent round of telephonic oral arguments at the Supreme Court, and in particular the Justices’ stringently ordered questioning. Some prominent commentators have criticized the regimented process, arguing that it prevents cross-discussion and gives to much power to the Chief Justice, who acts as the moderator. But Lat points out that a more carefully ordered structure also has its advantages, and even notes that there is ample room for some middle ground:

Evidence that the new approach promotes rather than reduces equality among the justices: the active participation of Justice Clarence Thomas, who in the past has rarely asked questions during oral argument, but who used the more orderly format to raise a number of excellent and incisive points. The old format gave an unfair advantage to the most aggressive and obstreperous justices, while disadvantaging someone like Justice Thomas, a self-described introvert, as well as the female justices, who were frequently interrupted by their male colleagues. In other words, the new format is more fair to justices who aren’t white males.

But there is, as is often the case at SCOTUS, some room for compromise. My proposal (which I previously floated on Twitter): have one round of questions moderated by the Chief Justice, where each justice gets to have a say, then devote the remaining time to unstructured questioning.

Yes. Even with an institution as tradition-oriented and “small-c” conservative as the Supreme Court, there is a good chance that some of the changes necessitated by the coronavirus will stick when the pandemic is over. Lat offers good suggestions that the Supreme Court might well wish to take into account.

The Supreme Court’s Sometimes Questionable Adherence to Principle in Voting Rights Cases

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

In Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that absentee ballots in Wisconsin had to be postmarked by election day or earlier, which meant that many citizens would have to brave the polls and risk exposure to the novel coronavirus in order to vote. A New York Times story subsequently observed that the per curiam decision “was in keeping with a broader Republican approach that puts more weight on protecting against potential fraud — vanishingly rare in American elections — than the right to vote, with limited regard for the added burdens of the pandemic.”

This view aligns with that of the critics who note that the results in many of the Court’s recent voting rights decisions tend as a practical matter to inure to the benefit of the Republican Party. Indeed, a central question raised by the Court’s rulings in this area is whether the prevailing majority in these cases – Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – is motivated solely by partisanship. Writing in The Atlantic about the decision in the Wisconsin case, for example, Garret Epps asked whether the majority was “guided by principle or by simple allegiance to the party that has gone to such lengths to seize control of the Court.”

There is an argument to be made that there is a principle at work in election cases—that the Court’s rulings reflect neither the majority’s embrace of dubious theories about voter fraud nor a bare desire to harm Democrats but, rather, a commitment to resolving disputes about who gets to vote on neutral grounds. Indeed, the Roberts court’s voting rights decisions can be seen as expressions of the majority’s abiding interest in avoiding – seemingly at all costs – any judicial involvement in the way state governments run elections. This interest follows from the premise that, as the majority reads it, the constitution is pre-political: there are no Republicans and Democrats, only candidates; and the rules under which elections are run are, other than when they are expressly discriminatory on the basis of race, the purview of legislators. Continue reading “The Supreme Court’s Sometimes Questionable Adherence to Principle in Voting Rights Cases”

The Virtues of Remote Access to the Supreme Court

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Writing in The Hill, Jonathan Turley argues that, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, government should not stop working simply because members of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court cannot meet in person. He suggests, for example, that the Court could hold televised arguments with only counsel and the justices present. This is in contrast to Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision “to suspend all further arguments,” despite a docket of cases that Turley rightly characterizes as of “enormous national importance, from health care to gun rights to immigration.” As he puts it, “because justices oppose cameras in its chambers, the business of the Supreme Court has now largely come to a grinding halt.”

Of course, there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the Supreme Court from operating virtually or televising oral arguments—the framers could not have imagined modern communications technology. Rather, the obstacle today remains the justices themselves. As retired Justice Anthony Kennedy once observed, there is a concern that the justices would not be able to refrain from “saying something for a sound bite.”

But the justices are not the only ones worried about the effect of remote access to oral arguments. Responding to Turley, Jonathan Grove contends that, because “the judicial branch is the only branch for which rigorous argument is still the business of the day,” cameras would threaten to turn the Court’s work into “source material for our watered-down ‘infotainment’ industry and angry Twitter partisans.” Further, he insists that the Court’s work is not essential in a time of crisis: “With some notable exceptions, meeting the immediate needs of citizens is a job that falls to state and local governments and, to a lesser extent, the executive branch. … Our constitutional system will not collapse if [the legislative and judicial] branches end up having to take extra time off.”

The problem with Grove’s argument, at least as it applies to the Court, is that, while we expect and hope the resolution of the disputes before the justices will be appropriately deliberative and thoughtful, that does not mean the work is less urgent. As of this writing, we are awaiting further clarity on a wide array of issues currently pending, including cases addressing the scope of the president’s ability to withhold information from Congress. This is an issue of particular importance at the moment, not just as it relates to Congressional oversight, but more immediately as it concerns President Trump’s recent suggestion that he has no constitutional obligation to share with Congress certain information related to the allocation of million of dollars under the new federal economic stabilization law.

Moreover, there is something odd about the argument that, were the public to have access to oral arguments before the Supreme Court – arguably, the least influential part of the appellate process – neither the justices not the advocates before them would be able to resist the temptation to grandstand. Many state high courts have experimented with televising oral arguments, and there is no evidence that either the judges or the attorneys treat the occasion with less seriousness, or that it has affected the sense of decorum that traditionally attends appellate arguments.

At the end of the day, we have passed the point at which it can be denied that the Supreme Court and its decisions have become more central to American life than the framers could possibly have imagined. It remains for others to debate whether this is a salutary development. The federal government in the past century has evolved to operate in ways the framers did not explicitly contemplate. One result has been conflicts about the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, and between the federal and state governments, which lawmakers and citizens alike expect the Supreme Court to resolve—and this is not to mention the myriad and important individual rights issues on the Court’s docket.

To the extent the Court has become the decisionmaker of last resort, the American people would benefit from seeing at least a glimpse of the way in which it works. Such access might provide some assurance to citizens who may question the Court’s role, or the pledge of its members to resolve the matters before them based upon argument and reason, rather than partisan affiliation. In the end, opportunities for the American people to see for themselves what the justices do could well enhance the respect upon which the Court depends for its legitimacy.

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.

Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now

Lawrence Friedman’s recent post lays out a compelling case for achieving educational and experiential diversity on the Supreme Court. He looks to the states for guidance, noting that courts of last resort at the state level frequently feature highly qualified justices who graduated from a wide range of law schools and who feature an extensive variety of practice experience.

It’s a tantalizing analogy, which works well in some states but doesn’t translate to the federal level. Still, there are glimmers of hope for more experiential diversity in future iterations of the Supreme Court. More below. Continue reading “Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now”

Educational and experiential diversity on the federal bench

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

As recently noted in the Interdependent Third Branch, the novel coronavirus has caused the U.S. Supreme Court to close its doors to the public until further notice. Several of the justices fall into the category of persons most vulnerable to the disease: Stephen Breyer is 81 years old; Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 87 next week; and Clarence Thomas is 71. Three other justices are in their sixties: Samuel Alito is 69, while both the chief justice, John Roberts, and Sonia Sotomayor are 65.

The list is a reminder of how gray the Court has become—and that the potential for multiple appointments is going to be a significant campaign issue in November. One aspect of that issue is the lack of diversity on the Court, which reflects the lack of diversity in the federal judiciary. A February report by the American Constitution Society put it bluntly: “judges who sit on the federal bench are overwhelmingly white and male.” In addition to gender and race, moreover, most judges at the highest levels of the federal system share another characteristic: they all attended a very small number of elite law schools. As the New York Times recently noted, most of President Donald Trump’s judicial appointees “have elite credentials, with nearly half having trained as lawyers at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago or Yale.”

Consider the members of the Supreme Court. Four justices hold law degrees from Yale Law School, four from Harvard Law School and one – Ginsburg – started at Harvard and finished at Columbia Law School. Eight served as judges on federal appeals courts, while one – Kagan – served previously as solicitor general and, before that, dean of Harvard Law School. Just one –Sotomayor – served as a federal district court judge. Three served at one time as full-time law professors—Breyer and Kagan at Harvard, Ginsburg at Columbia.

Or, consider the members of the junior varsity Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Of the eleven judges not on senior status, five graduated from Harvard, two each from the law schools at the Universities of Virginia and Chicago, and one each from Stanford University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Only two served as district court judges prior to being elevated to the Appeals Court.

Twenty judges total and, among them, they represent just seven law schools, with almost half just one, Harvard. Only three, moreover, know what it is like to oversee civil and criminal litigation on the ground, to hear motions to suppress and make evidentiary rulings at trial.

This lack of intellectual and experiential diversity is not new. Observing, a decade ago, that Sotomayor would add diversity to the supreme court in respect to ethnicity, gender and economic origins, Renée Landers and I nonetheless concluded that selecting nominees from within a narrow range of qualifications defined by pedigree effectively deprives the public of judges “who may see the world and the legal issues it presents in ways that are different and more helpful than those [judges] whose views on the law were shaped by essentially the same educational and professional experiences.”

The American Constitution Society is right: “Courts should look like the people they represent,” which I take to mean the citizens the federal judiciary serves. But such diversity should not be limited to gender and race or ethnicity. Rather, on the nation’s highest federal courts, it should encompass the varied educational and practical experiences available in a profession that produces countless lawyers who have not served as either federal appellate judges or law school professors.

As in other areas of the law, presidents and senators could look to the states for other approaches. Just as state courts have been leaders in exploring the breadth and depth of constitutional commitments to individual rights and liberties through their own constitutions, so too have appointing authorities in many states valued diverse educational and practical experiences in selecting judges for their high courts. Of the justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, for example, three attended Harvard and one Chicago, while two attended Suffolk University School of Law and one Boston University Law School. Five sat earlier in their careers on the state’s trial court.

Elite law schools and federal appellate judges have no monopoly on teaching legal reasoning or applying it, respectively. It stands to reason that lawyers trained to consider the practical implications of doctrinal changes and how such changes may affect the parties before them are likely to have a different appreciation for the consequences of appellate decisionmaking. This is not to suggest that these judges make better decisions—just that, to the extent each of us is shaped by our experiences, the high courts on which these judges sit are likely to benefit from the perspectives they bring to bear on the resolution of disputes over statutory and constitutional meaning. It is important, as the American Constitution Society and others maintain, that judges look like the people they serve. It should also be important that they reflect the ways in which most American lawyers appreciate both the law and the role judges play in defining it.

This post is the first of a larger exchange on Supreme Court qualifications and the nominating process. For Jordy Singer’s response, click here. For Lawrence Friedman’s reply, click here.

U.S. Supreme Court closes in response to coronavirus threat

SCOTUSBlog reports:

Shortly after the White House and Congress announced that they would close to the public due to increasing concern over the coronavirus, the Supreme Court this afternoon followed suit. In a brief notice posted on the court’s website, the court announced that it would close to the public as of 4:30 p.m. today and would remain closed “until further notice.” However, the court indicated that its building would “remain open for official business” and that filing deadlines would not be extended.

The closure comes during what would normally be a relatively quiet period at the court: The justices wrapped up their February argument session last week and are not scheduled to hear oral arguments again until March 23. There has been no word from the court on whether the March argument session will take place as scheduled and, if so, whether members of the public will be admitted to watch the argument. Yesterday the public health department in Washington, D.C., recommended that “non-essential” gatherings of more than a thousand people be canceled as one way to fight the spread of the virus. The courtroom seats approximately 400 people.

The notice announcing the closure indicated that the Supreme Court’s building was being closed to the public because of “concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees.” Two of the justices are in their eighties: Justice Stephen Breyer is 81, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 87 next week. Justice Clarence Thomas is 71, while three more justices are in their sixties: Justice Samuel Alito is 69, and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor are both 65.

Gabe Roth, the transparency advocate from Fix the Court, sees this as another argument for livestreaming. He sent out the following press release this afternoon:

Given the crowds that often gather in and around the Supreme Court, not to mention the advanced age of several of the justices, it’s the right call to close the building to the public until further notice.
That said, if this state of affairs continues through March 23 – the next time the justices hear arguments – the Court should at a minimum permit the public to listen to a livestream of argument audio from its website.
We believe the Court already has this capacity, as it streamed a Justice Scalia memorial service in Nov. 2016, and any technological gaps could be filled in by the nearby D.C. Circuit, which since Sept. 2018 has offered live online audio for all of its hearings.
Live audio is the smartest way to balance the now-competing concerns of public safety and public access.

On reforming the Supreme Court

Russell Wheeler at the Brookings Institution has taken a detailed look at the various proposals to reform the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, from court-packing to term limits. He provides a short history of each proposal (including potential legal stumbling blocks). Most importantly, he determines that at this time, the American public has no real taste for Supreme Court reform — the most significant stumbling block for any court proposal.

Wheeler concludes:

That reasonable people are even debating these proposals speaks to the degradation of the federal judicial appointment process at all levels, a decline that has been building steam for several decades. The once near-ministerial task of appointing and confirming federal judges has stretched from one or two months into sometimes year-long ordeals, even for non-controversial nominees.

Both parties have undermined the guard rails that that once pushed presidents and senators to seek judicial candidates within some broad mainstream of ideological boundaries, even allowing for occasional outliers. Democrats killed the filibuster for most nominees, and Republicans finished it off for Supreme Court candidates and, to boot, ended the home-state senator (of either party) veto of circuit nominees that Republican senators exploited relentlessly to block Obama administration appointees.

Pack-the-court proposals that would normally seem bizarre are understandable in today’s partisan climate. If the federal judiciary becomes a 21st century version of the 1930s judiciary that thwarted a popular push for change, they may even become necessary.

I don’t think we are anywhere near that level, despite the hysteria created by left-leaning partisans and academics. While Republican presidents have appointed more Justices, and while the justices serve longer, on average, than they ever did before, the leftward policy drift of many Republican appointees over time tends to keep the Court much more balanced than it might seem at the time of a Justice’s confirmation.

The battle over the Court is, in my mind, partially a spillover from the current partisan battles in the other branches and partially a reaction to the Republican Party’s successful focus on judicial appointments since the Reagan administration. When bipartisanship in Congress has eroded as badly as it has, it seems inevitable that both parties will seek to punish each other to the extent they can in the realm of judicial nominations. And the undeniable success of Republican administrations in populating the federal courts over the past forty years has left Democrats in a state of agitation, bordering on desperation.

I do not know if and when some sense of bipartisan responsibility and decorum will return to Congress. But until then, radical proposals to reform the Court are likely to constitute ongoing collateral damage.

When should judges speak out?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor drew attention last week when she filed a dissent in a case staying the issuance of a preliminary injunction against the federal government. The injunction had been issued by a federal district judge in Chicago, and barred the Trump Administration from implementing a “public charge” policy that would require immigrants seeking green cards to demonstrate that they would not need government assistance. Beyond disagreeing with the majority’s decision to overturn the injunction, Justice Sotomayor expressed dismay with her colleagues’ readiness to entertain “extraordinary” appeals from the Trump Administration, rather than letting those appeals first work their way through the intermediate appellate courts. She wrote:

[T]his Court is partly to blame for the breakdown in the appellate process. That is because the Court—in this case, the New York cases, and many others—has been all too quick to grant the Government’s “reflexiv[e]” requests. But make no mistake: Such a shift in the Court’s own behavior comes at a cost. Stay applications force the Court to consider important statutory and constitutional questions that have not been ventilated fully in the lower courts, on abbreviated timetables and without oral argument. They upend the normal appellate process, putting a thumb on the scale in favor of the party that won a stay. (Here, the Government touts that in granting a stay in the New York cases, this Court “necessarily concluded that if the court of appeals were to uphold the preliminary injunctio[n], the Court likely would grant a petition for a writ of certiorari” and that “there was a fair prospect the Court would rule in favor of the government.”) They demand extensive time and resources when the Court’s intervention may well be unnecessary—particularly when, as here, a court of appeals is poised to decide the issue for itself.

Perhaps most troublingly, the Court’s recent behavior on stay applications has benefited one litigant over all others. This Court often permits executions—where the risk of irreparable harm is the loss of life—to proceed, justifying many of those decisions on purported failures “to raise any potentially meritorious claims in a timely manner.” Yet the Court’s concerns over quick decisions wither when prodded by the Government in far less compelling circumstances—where the Government itself chose to wait to seek relief, and where its claimed harm is continuation of a 20-year status quo in one State. I fear that this disparity in treatment erodes the fair and balanced decisionmaking process that this Court must strive to protect.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dissent drew vindictive attention from President Trump, who took time away from his visit to India to chastise Sotomayor and suggest that both she and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who publicly criticized Trump in July 2016) recuse themselves from all future cases involving Trump or the Trump Administration. “I just don’t know how they cannot recuse themselves with anything having to do with Trump or Trump-related,” the President said.

The U.S. Supreme Court was not alone in facing scrutiny for the perceived political statements of judges. In Alaska, Chief Justice Joel Bolger has been drawn into a controversy surrounding an effort to recall the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy. Proponents of the recall allege (among other things) that the governor showed lack of fitness for the office by refusing to appoint a trial judge within the 45-day period prescribed by statute, and by “improperly using the line-item veto to … attack the judiciary and the rule of law.” The legality of the recall was challenged in court, and the state supreme court will hear the case on March 25. But some are calling for Bolger to recuse himself from the recall decision, given that Bolger commented on the governor’s behavior at the time of the trial judge appointment controversy. (Bolger also criticized the line-term veto in a separate speech.) Bolger has declined to remove himself from the case of his own volition, but the supreme court did take the unusual step of issuing a letter inviting motions to disqualify if others felt it was warranted.

It is certainly true that judges must take care in their public pronouncements, especially as they relate to politics, public policy, or other government officials. Diving recklessly into partisan political debate is a time-honored recipe for eroding the legitimacy of the judicial branch. But it is also true that the judiciary is an independent branch of government, and should have a voice on issues that affect it as an institution. Where do we draw a sensible line?

Continue reading “When should judges speak out?”