A Word Against Smearing Supreme Court Justices

Gabe Roth of the advocacy group Fix the Court published an Op-Ed essay, “The Supreme Court Is Being Hypocritical,” in today’s New York Times.  He points to factual circumstances in various cases that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided recently or is considering.  He argues that these facts and the concerns they raise (in his mind) apply not just to the litigants in those cases, but to the Justices too.

Mr. Roth calls these cases the Court’s “self-referential docket,” but really he’s criticizing what he sees as the Justices’ failures to reference themselves.  He wants the Justices to see ethical issues in their own behaviors and, in response, to promulgate new rules to address them, and to behave in ways that he thinks would be ethically better.

Alas, his list of particulars is flawed.  To wit:

  • Yes, Elena Kagan was Solicitor General of the U.S. before her appointment to the Court. But she did not “surely” have significant involvement as S.G. in Affordable Care Act cases.  In fact, it is well-documented that she avoided them, perhaps because her judicial appointment was already impending when those cases began.
  • Yes, Justices and their family members do own stocks (as many, many people do, directly or at least indirectly). But the ideas that Justice Stephen Breyer or Chief Justice John Roberts—each rich beyond the point of having financial needs or concerns, by the way—cast votes in Supreme Court cases so as to raise their stock share prices is just outrageous.  And so is the idea that Breyer, Roberts, or Justice Samuel Alito, or any justice, will cast a vote in a pending insider trading case so as to move financial markets in the justice’s favor.
  • Yes, the Supreme Court has not recently taken a case to review the constitutionality of a law banning certain protests on the plaza in front of the Court building. And yes, the Court in 2014 unanimously invalidated a state law barring protesters within 35 feet of abortion clinics (McCullen v. Coakley).  But Roth’s implication that judicial self-interest explains these differing legal outcomes oversimplifies matters, vastly—as reading various Supreme Court and lower court decisions on these and other “buffer zone”/speech restriction laws will quickly demonstrate.
  • Yes, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the Court, when it upheld Missouri’s age 70 mandatory retirement rule for its judges, that “physical and mental capacity sometimes diminish with age.” (No kidding.)  And yes, Justice Antonin Scalia died last winter just before his 80th birthday, and Justice Anthony Kennedy recently celebrated his 80th.  And Roth’s point?  The idea that any Justices is forgetting his or her age and not monitoring his or her capacities is absurd.  The implication that Justice Scalia had become too infirm to serve, or that any Justice now is, is insulting because it is refuted by their performances on the bench, which occur in public and then are preserved on audio tape, and in their written opinions.

Mr. Roth’s bad examples only weaken his meritorious arguments.  Yes, the Court/the Justices could do much more to advance Court transparency and thus public appreciation for its performance.  For instance, filming oral arguments and then making those films publicly available, routinely but perhaps after an interval of time, would improve public education without affecting much how the Court does its work.

It only sets back public discourse, and it probably makes the Justices less receptive to sound reform proposals, to claim falsely that the Court is broken.

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