Justice Thomas and That Which Is Not Seen

Featured prominently on the front page of yesterday’s USA Today is Justice Clarence Thomas’s stony visage. The accompanying article by Joan Biskupic purports to be a “look back” at Thomas’s near two decades on the Court. In reality, the article is a thinly veiled hit piece on Thomas’s principled commitment to originalism, his understanding of the proper role of the judiciary, and his belief in the law.

Keying on Thomas’s “hard line” on criminal defendants, the article spends most of the time listing a rogues gallery of Thomas opinions that have been carefully chosen to pull at the heart strings and incense readers unfamiliar with the principles that stand behind Thomas’s positions. The gallery includes:

  • denying re-sentencing to a convicted drug dealer who had “entered rehabilitation and turned his life around”;
  • dissenting in a case “involving a Louisiana prisoner who had been shackled and punched by guards as a supervisor looked on”;
  • dissenting from a “decision against Alabama’s practice of chaining prisoners to outdoor hitching posts and abandoning them for hours without food or water”;
  • writing the majority opinion in Connick v. Thompson (in which Cato filed a brief supporting the defendant) holding that “a former death row convict could not sue prosecutors who had failed to turn over blood evidence that could have shown his innocence in a separate armed robbery and led him to testify on his behalf in a murder trial”; and
  • writing separately in the controversial Citizens United case to argue that rules requiring individuals and corporations to disclose their campaign spending violate the First Amendment.

In the wake of such a depressing litany of seeming heartlessness, it’s easy to imagine Justice Thomas cackling like a malevolent super-villain as the world burns around him. No doubt many people think the Court’s conservative wing are little better than black-robed Lex Luthors.

While I certainly don’t agree with every decision of Justice Thomas, including some listed in the article, Biskupic does not even try to account for, with an expert quote or otherwise, why Justice Thomas takes the positions he does.

In 1850, famed French Classical Liberal essayist Frederic Bastiat penned perhaps his most famous piece, That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen. In it he criticizes poor economists who analyze only the immediate, “seen” effects of a policy proposal but ignore the extended, secondary effects that are “not seen.” Bastiat wrote:

In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause — it is seen. The others unfold in succession — they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference — the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.

Bastiat’s wise words can apply equally to those good judges who understand the extended effects of their rulings and those bad judges who ignore those extended effects in order to focus only on that which is seen. Justice Thomas is in the former category. He has always understood that every Supreme Court ruling affects more than just the parties before the Court, no matter how sympathetic and heartbreaking those parties may be.

Take Justice Thomas’s opinion in Connick v. Thompson. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office admitted to violating John Thompson’s civil rights when they withheld crucial evidence from his trial. As a result, Mr. Thompson spent 18 years — 14 in solitary confinement — on death row. The district court awarded $15 million to Mr. Thompson, a judgment roughly on par with the operating budget of the office for an entire year.

Mr. Thompson’s situation is heartbreaking. However, his plight is not the only tragic story at stake. There are other stories that we must imagine. As such, they hit us with less immediate emotional force.

The current economic woes of state governments should remind us that the resources of local government are far from inexhaustible. Large judgments, after all, can mean the elimination of vital services. After Hurricane Katrina, it was in New Orleans that the term “misdemeanor murder” was coined, a snarky riposte to the New Orleans District Attorney’s office lacking the resources to investigate all the claims of murder within the statutorily prescribed time limit. Thousands of felons were released due to the failure to prosecute. The murder rate in New Orleans then set a record.

These effects, of course, cannot be directly traced to the judgment granted to Mr. Thompson. Nevertheless, these are possible real-world consequences of large judgments issued against prosecutors for misconduct. The question in Connick was whether the district attorney’s office itself — meaning the government and the taxpayers — must pay for the unlawful actions of one of its prosecutors. Here we tread on dangerous ground. A broad theory of government liability could threaten to open a “floodgate of litigation” across the country and possibly raise murder rates in cities other than New Orleans.

I disagree with Thomas’s opinion in Connick, but I certainly would not characterize his reasoning as heartless or lacking in consideration for a defendant’s plight. We should have empathy for those on both sides — the seen and the unseen — and not just for Mr. Thompson.

Also, we should remember one of the most important, and most forgotten, maxims in legal philosophy: a good law can sometimes produce bad results. Many may blanch at this assertion, may claim that if a bad result comes from a good law then that law can be tweaked at the margins, given exceptions and codicils. But what would result from this ad hoc process of outcome-oriented adjustments would not be a law, but rather a congealed mass of lawyer-ese backed by force. It would likely fail to give adequate notice as to what is illegal (already a huge problem, as I wrote about here) and it would lack one of the sine qua nons of law: generality. Over-particularizing the law — that is, adding in exceptions, balancing tests, and provisos — does not give life and conscience to the law, it threatens to fundamentally undermine it.

And lastly, remember that every wrong does not have an effective legal remedy. Bending the law to ensure that all wrongs are compensated by someone with sufficiently deep pockets will only guarantee that those living under the law are subject to increasingly arbitrary enforcement. This is perhaps the biggest “that which is not seen.”