Since the Supreme Court Mess that I analyzed yesterday really is a Supreme Court Mess and not simply a Ruth Bader Ginsburg Mess, today let’s dive right into problems with how Americans deal with the top of the federal government’s judiciary branch other than the means of picking the late Justice’s replacement.
First and maybe most obvious comes an inconsistency in the position of the Democrats and especially of their presidential nominee this year, former Vice President Joe Biden. From that party and candidate comes the insistence that it’s wrong for President Trump to choose a new Justice so close to the November election because it could strap the country with a new Justice and Court line-up that flout the popular will that would be revealed by a Biden win on major policy issues (like abortion or the future of Obamacare).
Leaving aside the (clear un-) Constitutionality of this position, it’s not entirely unreasonable. But it would become much stronger substantively, and much less vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and pure partisanship, if Biden enabled voters to assess their actual Supreme Court-related choices at least as clearly as Mr. Trump has with the list of Ginsburg replacement possibilities he’s released. Biden has promised that he’d put forward an African American woman (though maybe not this time?). But which ones is he considering (if it is this time)? He hasn’t told us. So the criterion of fairness should oblige him to release his own list ASAP, to permit voters to weigh the alternatives fully. After all, even if they don’t like any of the Trump candidates (which the President has subsequently announced will be restricted to women), Americans might like Biden’s choices even less.
The second problem, though, has precisely to do with the identity politics of Supreme Court nominations that both Biden and the President are practicing. Not that I have any inherent objection to another female Justice or the first African American female Justice. But these announcements raise any number of divisive questions that Americans could do without in these divisive times. Just a few examples:
>During the Obama years, there was much talk that the Court needed an Asian-American Justice. (Full disclosure: Denny Chin, the federal appeals court judge mentioned here, is a college friend.) So many valid reasons were cited (e.g., they’re “the fastest growing population of color in the country, with a voting electorate expected to double in the next 25 years”). Exactly when, therefore, did this proposal become obsolete? And why?
>Regarding the Biden pledge to nominate an African American woman, that would move the Court’s makeup closer to the gender composition of the entire U.S. population, so this promise can be justified by the goal of making the Court “look like America.” (So would the President’s promise to choose a woman whose race or ethnic background he hasn’t specified.) But an African American woman would bring the number of African Americans on the Court to two (along with Clarence Thomas). Since they amount to only some 13 percent of all Americans, they’d be way over-represented.
>The same outcome would result from if Mr. Trump picks Cuban-American federal appeals court judge Barbara Lagoa from Florida. She’d be the second Latino woman on the Court (along with Sonia Sotomayor). But that decision would create another over-representation situation (though not one as sizable as those for African Americans, at least in the early part of a Biden administration). And what about Latino men? They’d remain completely shut out. How come?
Again, I agree broadly with the idea that the leadership ranks of major American institutions, especially public, but also private, should be diverse enough in terms of all the major population categories to make sure that the widely varying experiences of these groups contribute to decision-making. In my view, that’s a major plus, since the idea of objectively optimal policies or practices is impossibly naive, and because the choices made by public institutions are bound to affect different groups differently.
But although all these stakeholders deserve a say, when diversity – and especially specific diversity formulas – become explicit, you unfortunately enter a world in which the kinds of potentially ugly identity politics-related questions just mentioned tend to come to the fore, and vital issues of merit tend to move to the rear.
As a result, though doing so is somewhat hypocritical, certain kinds of fictions do serve important purposes. So I hope that from now on, diversity promises for public appointments at least become less explicit, and the results become the product of informal political pressures and other considerations. (Privately owned institutions should be able to do whatever they want within the bounds of anti-discrimination laws. Even so, diversity can benefit them, too, since especially in the case of businesses, they’re trying to win and keep customers, and diverse leadership ranks are likely to provide important insights into appealing to various population groups.)
The third big part of the Supreme Court Mess: The American political system clearly has moved way too far away from the crucial idea that, since elections matter, Presidents have the right to appoint whoever they wish to fill positions the Constitution entitles them to fill unless their choices are flagrantly incompetent, or utterly dismissive of Constitutional and ther legal standards, or ethically or criminally compromised. If Senators simply don’t agree with nominees on legitimate Constitutional and legal controversies – too bad.
Thankfully, this idea isn’t completely dead. For example, three Democrats did vote to approve Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch in April, 2017. At the same time, three isn’t much. Vastly more encouraging: In August, 1993, Ginsburg was confirmed by a 96 to 3 vote (one Senator abstained), which means that plenty of Republicans supported here even though she surely wasn’t their legal and Constitutional cup of tea.
At the same time, Republicans controlled the Senate when Gorsuch was considered, and Democrats enjoyed a majority when Ginsburg came up. So a better example of this ideal would be the 1990 vote in favor of David H. Souter. He was a George H.W. Bush nominee, yet won the nod of a Democratic Senate – in a 90-9 landslide. (This time, one Senator didn’t vote.)
Or was it? After all, Souter arguably received this margin precisely because his views on major subjects were so unknown – largely because his lower court opinions and other legal writings were so plain vanilla or so scarce or both. As widely (and convincingly) supposed, Souter (and his supporters) had learned the big lesson of the failed nomination of Robert Bork: Don’t leave a conspicuous “paper trail.”
Bork, whose bid for the Court failed in 1987, was rejected by a Democratic-controlled Senate largely because his prodigious writings were so controversial. His reputation as a Watergate-era villain surely didn’t help, either.
But were Bork’s views so out of the mainstream, as his opponents charged? Just a year earlier, another doctrinaire judicial conservative nominated by President Ronald Reagan – Antonin Scalia – was elevated to the Court. And he won unanimously. (Two Senators didn’t vote.) But that year, Republicans ran the upper chamber.
As a result, it’s easy to conclude that the tradition of “Borking” is very much alive, and that overly political Supreme Court nomination fights will continue for the time being.
The final big aspect of the Supreme Court mess: This drift away from the respect for legitimate presidential prerogatives no doubt results from both the prominent role the Court has played in deciding issues (like Obamacare) that elected politicians should be figuring out, and this prominence, and the towering stakes thereby created, in turn stem from the lifetime nature of Court terms. In other words, once a Justice is confirmed, he or she can serve literally for decades, and for just as long decisively influence policy decisions that shouldn’t be legalized.
Therefore, although I’m super-hesitant to support Constitutional changes in response to developments that are probably transient, I fear that the too often vicious and hyper-partisan nature of American politics is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Therefore, I’d support at least considering an amendment that would limit the Justices’ terms. One possible model: the Federal Reserve, another government body that’s supposed to be shielded from politics, and whose seven Board members serve for fourteen years, and whose Chair and Vice Chair are limited to four (although this curb doesn’t count against their Board service).
Not that I love the Fed’s degree of autonomy. But the temperature of national politics clearly needs to be lowered to safer levels, and term limits on the increasingly supremely powerful Supreme Court are the best place to start I can think of.