Biden tips his hand on the next Supreme Court nominee

Keep an eye on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the newest nominee to the D.C. Circuit.

Ketanji Brown JacksonPresident Biden has issued his first list of intended judicial nominees, mostly to federal district courts across the country. They are a highly accomplished and — as best I can tell — highly qualified group of nominees. 

Perusing the list, I’m going to call my shot now and predict that whenever an opening on the Supreme Court occurs, the  President’s first nominee will be Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Judge Jackson is already a well-respected federal district judge, and is set to be nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She therefore follows the path of other budding judicial stars who were elevated to the circuit courts before an eventual Supreme Court nomination by the same president. (Justice Amy Coney Barrett is the most recent example.) Judge Jackson also checks all the boxes: she is brilliant, accomplished, hard-working, well-respected, relatively young, and (important for Biden’s camp, at least) a Black woman. She is also kind, professional, and gracious — at least that is the clear memory I have from the time we overlapped as litigation associates at Goodwin Procter nearly twenty years ago.

Predictably, much of the mainstream media is focusing on the race and gender of the nominees, rather than their exceptional talent and qualifications. This does a remarkable disservice both to the nominees and the public. It reduces a lifetime of individual hard work, achievement — and yes, most assuredly some luck — to a crass demographic calculation. And it communicates that their skills and abilities are secondary to their immutable characteristics, a message that can only reduce confidence in judicial decisions and the court system as a whole.  

Congratulations to all the nominees. The country will better off with your skill and talent filling our open judgeships.

Are Supreme Court amicus briefs posing a transparency problem?

That’s the question raised in this excellent Wall Street Journal piece by Jess Bravin. He reports that the number of amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court has risen dramatically in recent years, with many of the briefs coming from opaque interest groups. Current Supreme Court rules only require that an amicus brief disclose whether a party or its lawyer funded the brief, or whether anyone else outside the named party contributed to its preparation. But this leaves plenty of room for little-known groups to file briefs, which may carry outsized influence with the Court.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is pushing for greater transparency in amicus briefs. I have criticized Senator Whitehouse routinely on this blog for his often perverse behaviors toward the federal courts, but on this issue we agree: greater transparency would benefit everyone.

Still, the courts would be better off modifying the policy themselves, rather than sitting back and allowing Whitehouse and his compatriots to force a legislative solution.

What should we expect of Biden when it comes to the judiciary?

The new administration is borrowing from Trump’s playbook, not Obama’s.

Three weeks into the Biden administration, the new President’s approach to the judicial branch is coming into focus. It looks a lot like that of his immediate predecessor, with a heavy focus on appointing federal judges and advancing court-related policies that satisfy the ruling party’s ideological litmus test.

Biden entered the White House with only 46 vacancies on the federal bench, and several pending nominations remaining from Trump’s final weeks. But when the runoff elections in Georgia produced a 50-50 Senate and the ability of Vice President Harris to serve as a tiebreaker, the calculus on judicial appointments changed. The White House rescinded all of the pending Trump-era nominations and put out a call for its own nominees. More conspicuously, progressive activists and academics began urging older federal judges to take senior status, a designation which would keep them on the bench with a reduced caseload, but which (more importantly) would open additional vacancies at the district court and circuit court level.

Biden last week also rejected any formal role for the American Bar Association in pre-vetting federal judicial nominees, a stunning move for a Democratic President. The ABA’s process focuses on a nominee’s ideologically neutral qualifications, like experience and temperament. For generations, its ratings of nominees has served as an additional quality check — and since most nominees are deemed qualified or well-qualified, an additional stamp of approval that can help with Senate confirmation. When Donald Trump rejected the ABA’s vetting role in early 2017, I described the action as an “unforced error.” And indeed, it was — the ABA continued to vet the nominees even without the President’s blessing, and identified a handful of candidates who were plainly unqualified for the federal bench. Rejecting the ABA four years ago opened the door for criticism that Trump’s nominations were based more on ideology than skill and competence; rejecting it now will open the identical door for Biden. Continue reading “What should we expect of Biden when it comes to the judiciary?”

Another voice against court packing

With the Biden Administration announcing the formation of a committee to explore reforms to the Supreme Court—including the possibility of adding seats—Democratic political consultant Douglas Schoen offers several words of caution in The Hill for would-be court packers. The key grafs:

Even if Democrats can get rid of the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court on a party line vote would tarnish judicial credibility and would reduce the institution to a partisan tool. Moreover, it would trigger an endless cycle of revenge politics, as each successive party in control would be motivated to add justices to restructure ideological balance on the bench.

The backlash of packing the Supreme Court would be considerable for Democrats, as this move is unpopular with voters. After the confirmation of Barrett, a national survey had found that, by 47 percent to 34 percent, voters think Democrats should refrain from altering the Supreme Court. But most Democrats do want party leaders to add more justices.

So packing the Supreme Court would damage the chances for Biden of achieving his elusive goal of unifying both parties. This would send the message that he is instead interested in fueling the current climate of partisan politics, rather than trying to fix it. It would not only harm his legacy, but would also likely prevent him from being able to pass any meaningful or comprehensive bipartisan legislation in office.

Schoen focuses primarily on the political damage that would be wreaked by court-packing, but the institutional damage to the judiciary would be just as significant. It would dramatically undermine public confidence in the Court through no fault of its own.

Institutions are fragile things. They take generations to build and imbue with legitimacy and confidence, but far less time to destroy. With so many of our political, religious, cultural, and civic institutions already under attack, we should refrain now from opening another wholly unnecessary front.

Enough.

Like all of us, I have been struggling to process the extraordinary events in Washington, DC over the last couple of days. Since this blog was founded in 2017, I have made every effort to afford Donald Trump the respect due to the Presidential office. That form of respect, I felt, was owed to American democracy itself.

But Trump clearly respects neither the office nor American democracy. The insurrectionist mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday had assembled and moved at his direction. And he did virtually nothing to stop the carnage, placing thousands of people directly in harm’s way. It is entirely proper that he be removed from office immediately.

The aftermath of the insurrection offered some comfort for those who still have great faith in America as the beacon of freedom and democracy. I watched the Senate return to its chamber and continue its debate, with members on both sides of the aisle recognizing the gravity of the situation and the particular blessings of liberty that elevated them to membership in the greatest deliberative body in history. Perhaps this shocking moment will remind all of Congress — all of our leaders, elected or unelected — that they bear heavy responsibilites that come with public service, among them reasoned debate and respect for the rule of law. Maybe — just maybe — they will lead rather than snipe. Maybe they will contemplate rather than tweet. Maybe they will show us that they, too, and worthy of the offices with which they have been entrusted.

And what of the judges? A SCOTUSBlog editorial has called on the Supreme Court to issue a statement confirming the basic fact that Joe Biden won the Presidential election. I think that is unlikely, given the Court’s reticence to express any view on an issue not directly before it. But it is nevertheless a good idea. The Justices are Americans first, and through a combination of merit and happenstance they find themselves in a position of prominence at this moment in history. They sat silently while another mob destroyed a federal courthouse in Oregon this summer. It is time to speak up. History will remember what they say — and what they don’t.

Other judges will eventually have their say, as the insurrections are rounded up and brought to justice. I am reminded of a moment nearly seven years ago, when Boston was shaken first by the bombs that detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and later that week by a manhunt that shut down the city and surrounding towns for an entire day. It was the first time I heard the phrase “shelter in place,” and it was terrifying. When I returned to school after the incident, I struggled for what to say to my students. I decided to read them a portion of the statement given by Judge William Young when he sentenced another terrorist — “shoe bomber” Richard Reid — in 2004. It captured all the feelings I had that day:

You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier gives you far too muich stature. Whether it is the officers of government who do it or your attorney who does it, or that happens to be your view, you are a terrorist. And we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not treat with terrorists. We do not sign documents with terrorists. We hunt them down and bring them to justice.

So war talk is way out of line in this court. You’re a big fellow. But you’re not that big. You’re no warrior. I know warriors. You are a terrorist. A species of criminal guilty of multiple attempted murders.

In a very real sense Trooper Santiago had it right when first you were taken off that plane and [placed] into custody, and you wondered where the press and TV crews were, and [he] said, “you’re no big deal.” You’re no big deal.

What your counsel, your able counsel and what the equally able United States Attorneys have grappled with, and what I have as honestly as I know tried to grapple with, is why you did something so horrific. What was it that eld you here to this courtroom today. I have listened respectfully to what you have to say. And I ask you to search your heart and ask yourself what sort of unfathomable hate led you to do what you are guilty and admit you are guilty of doing.

And I have an answer for you. It may not satisfy you. But as I search this entire record it comes as close to understanding as I know.

It seems to me you hate the one thing that to us is the most precious. You hate our freedom. Our individual freedom. Our individual freedom to live as we choose, to come and go as we choose, to believe or not to believe as we individually choose.

Here, in this society, the very winds carry freedom. They carry it everywhere from sea to shining sea. It is because we prize individual freedom so much that you are here in this beautiful courtroom. So that everyone can see, truly see that justice is administered fully, individually, and discretely.

It is for freedom’s sake that your lawyers are striving so vigorously on your behalf and have filed appeals, [and] will go on in their … representation of you before other judges. We care about it. Because we all know that the way we treat you, Mr. Reid, is the measure of our own liberties.

Make no mistake, though, It is yet true that we will bear any burden, pay any price, to preserve our freedoms.

Look around this courtroom. Mark it well. The world is not going to long remember what you or I say here. Day after tomorrow it will be forgotten. But this, however, will long endure. Here, in this courtroom, and courtrooms all across America, the American people will gather to see that justice, individual justice, not war, individual justice is in fact being done.

The very President of the United States through his officers will have to come into courtrooms and lay out evidence on which specific matters can be judged, and juries of citizens will gather to sit and judge that evidence democratically, to mold and shape and refine our sense of justice.

See that flag, Mr. Reid? That’s the flag of the United States of America. That flag will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag still stands for freedom. You know it always will.

Custody, Mr. Officer. Stand him down.

Judges speak for our communities, our ideals, and our shared values. Many of them will have the chance to reiterate those ideals, proudly and publicly, in the coming months. It is altogether fitting that they — and we — do so. America is better than this terrible moment. Let’s get our house in order.

Arguing a Supreme Court case from home: a sketch artist’s view

I have been meaning to link to this wonderful SCOTUSBlog piece, in which courtroom sketch artist Art Lien captures attorneys conducting this past fall’s Supreme Court oral arguments from their home offices. The images alone give you an incredible glimpse into the variety of styles and philosophies. Some attorneys, dressed to the nines, stand at a podium in front of pristine surroundings. Others wear jeans and hoodies at their desks, surrounded by overflowing stacks of paper.

I always remind my Civil Procedure students that law school demands some sort of professional conformity, but that within those bounds they should never lose sight of their individual passions, personalities, and styles. These sketches are a terrific example of how confidence in your own style and successful lawyering can go hand-in-hand.

John J. Parker’s failed Supreme Court nomination

Columnist Ray Hill at The Knoxville Focus has been running an interesting multi-part series on the nomination of Judge John J. Parker to the Supreme Court in 1930. Judge Parker, who was serving on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, would narrowly lose his confirmation vote due to the complex political alignments of the era. He would continue to serve on the Fourth Circuit until his death in 1958.

Parker has long been an interesting character from the perspective of federal court organization and administration. A politician before he began his judicial career, Parker was very closely tied to the leadership of the American Bar Association, and was one of the principal architects of the “Queen Mary Compromise” which created the modern Judicial Conference of the United States. (Interested readers can learn more here.)

Ray Hill’s pieces paint a vivid history of the Parker nomination, from the surprise opening on the Court occasioned by Justice Edward Sanford’s untimely death (after a routine dental appointment), to the rift within the Republican Party, to the shifting political demographics of the South. Although all four parts collectively feel repetitive at times, it’s a valuable overview of a fascinating moment in history.

The four parts of the series can be found here, here, here, and here.

 

Assessing the Supreme Court’s new oral argument format

When the coronavirus pandemic forced it to move to telephonic oral arguments last May, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a new format. Each Justice, in descending order of seniority, was afforded three minutes to ask questions of each side. The result was much cleaner, and in many ways more interesting, that the conversational scrum that typically erupts at One First Street. Justice Thomas has come alive, knowing that he will be able to get a question out without interruption. And while more junior Justices have some of the wind taken out of their sails for having to wait their turn, some of the follow-up questions have proven to be equally interesting and clarifying.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the new format, and Bloomberg Law reporter Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson has been all over it. Last month, she explained that it has been harder for advocates and reporters to get a sense of what’s on the mind of Amy Coney Barrett, the juniormost Justice, since she is last in the queue to ask questions. And recently, she reported that many of the Justices themselves dislike the format, specifically because it stifles the freewheeling discussion to which they are accustomed. In particular, Justice Breyer, who likes to tease out lengthy hypotheticals during oral argument, has been frustrated to hear the Chief Justice say “your time is up” before the question is even complete.

I’m not sure there is an answer that will please everyone. My gut instinct is to extend the time for oral argument — there is nothing magical about 30 minutes per side — but that will probably just invite more palaverous and repetitive questions. What about submitting written questions to the parties after the argument? I’m just spitballing here. But having enjoyed getting to hear Justice Thomas’s thinking during telephonic hearings — not to mention the clarity of not having everyone talk over each other — I would hate to just have a knee-jerk reversion to the old system when the pandemic subsides.

Barrett confirmed and sworn in

Amy Coney Barrett is now the newest Justice of the United States Supreme Court. After a 52-48 vote Senate vote, she was sworn in last night by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justice Barrett has demonstrated the intelligence, legal skill, care, and demeanor to be an influential member of the Court for decades to come. As importantly, the Court is back to full strength and in a better position to carry out its Constitutional duties efficiently and effectively.