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.
In the last 15-20 years, court systems across the United States have slowly begun their own outreach in order to educate the public about their structure and their work. And there is good reason for the courts to take on this mission. The loss of robust civics education in many communities, combined with the flattening and sharpening effects of social media (which combine to eliminate much of the essential context and nuance from stories about the courts), means that court and judges are at increased risk of caricature.
One of the best programs originated in Colorado. Called “Our Courts Colorado,” it sends state judges to speak to schools and community groups about what exactly it is that the courts do. The program tries simultaneously to demystify the judicial system and to educate people about the important work of the courts.
The idea is spreading, slowly but surely, to other common law countries. New Zealand recently unveiled its own nine-minute video describing how the courts work. The video (also called “Our Courts”) is a little dry, but it has many subtle strengths. It shows judges in ordinary business dress, which humanizes them. It clearly explains the different levels within the court system, and the responsibilities of each court. And the video is available in three languages: English, Maori, and Mandarin.
Courts increasingly need to be their own advocates, and that includes assuring basic public familiarity with their work. This is a nice step forward in New Zealand.
Like so many others, I was saddened by the news that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is battling early stages of dementia. Now 88 years old, Justice O’Connor has been in the national spotlight for nearly four decades. Even after she retired from the Court in 2006, she stayed very much in public life, first founding the iCivics program and then lending her name and cachet to the O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan. Her absence from the public sphere will be missed.
So will her wit, razor-sharp mind, and commitment to the judiciary. A former Arizona state legislator, O’Connor never forgot the importance of justifying the work of the courts to other branches of government, and to the American people. Her opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) observed that the Court’s power lies “in its legitimacy, a product of substance and perception that shows itself in the people’s acceptance of the Judiciary as fit to determine what the Nation’s law means and to declare what it demands.” Her work with iCivics emphasized the importance of understanding our government institutions and holding them appropriately accountable. And her crusade against judicial elections over the past decade was grounded in the belief that when judges act like politicians, the integrity and legitimacy of the courts suffer.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Justice O’Connor once, about ten years ago. She came by the IAALS office in what I assumed would be a short meet-and-greet. She sat at a table with our (small) staff, and asked what we were working on. At the time, I was heavily focused on judicial performance evaluation. Justice O’Connor was interested–interested enough, in fact, to pepper me with detailed and remarkably incisive questions for about 20 minutes. It was both a terrifying and exhilarating experience–the closest I have ever come to a Supreme Court oral argument. And this was on a topic that she professed to know very little about.
The recent news has led to a cascade of well-wishes from across the political spectrum. Let me add to the chorus. My thoughts are with her and her family as she embarks on this new stage of life.
Above: Your humble blogger with Justice O’Connor, circa 2007.
Retired Alaska Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe has been awarded the 2017 Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education. Justice Fabe worked on a series of projects to promote awareness of the courts in schools and among the general public. The award, given by the National Center for State Courts, recognizes Justice O’Connor’s work in promoting civics awareness since her retirement from the Supreme Court in 2006.
I had the honor of meeting Justice Fabe once, and she is certainly a worthy recipient of this award.