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.

COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going

A glance at the recent developments, and what to look for in the future.

It has been about seven weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect state and federal courts in the United States. At this point, it seems worthwhile to set out the ways in which courts have responded, both by adjusting their own operations and by reaching out to others in the external environment. We can also begin to consider which of the current changes might stick after the pandemic subsides.

Hearings and transparency. Many state court systems have proven remarkably agile at moving in-court proceedings to telephone and videoconference platforms. Both trial and appellate courts are now holding regular hearings via Zoom (although some lawyers apparently need a reminder about appropriate dress). At least one state court has even conducted a full bench trial by Zoom. The federal court system has also made impressive strides, albeit with a bit more reluctance. In late March, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized the Chief Judge of each federal district court to permit selected criminal hearings within the district to proceed by videoconference. Federal appellate courts have also begun conducting criminal hearings by videoconference. And the United States Supreme Court announced that after a coronavirus-induced hiatus, it would hear a handful of regularly scheduled oral arguments by telephone beginning in May. Continue reading “COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going”

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.