Tag: judicial philosophy

Kagan May Well Become “The Liberal Scalia”

More highlights from Day 2 of the Kagan confirmation hearings:

•  In addition to backing away from President Obama’s empathy standard, Elena Kagan, under questioning by Senator Grassley, backs away from her “judicial hero” Aharon Barak, saying that she does not share his judicial philosophy, which involves judges making policy decisions and affirmatively shaping society.  This is an important concession.  Grassley also elicits the statement that only the president and Congress should worry about American influence in the world.

•  The wily Arlen Specter, in his last Supreme Court hearing (unless Justice Ginsburg retires over the summer), treats his questioning as a prosecutor would.  Technical questions and cutting off responses when Kagan begins to expound on the current state of the law, when what he really wants to know is what she thinks about the law.  Unfortunately, Specter accepts Kagan’s statements that she respects Congress but does not press her right when the next question would demand an actual opinion on Citizens United or on Morrison (an important case in which the Court struck down the Violence Against Women Act as beyond Congress’s powers to regulate interstate commerce).  Kagan admits that Citizens United was a “jolt to the system” because states had relied on the pre-existing campaign finance regime.  Unfortunately, this is again an empirical statement rather than a normative one.

•  Kagan does express a firm opinion in favor of televising Supreme Court proceedings (this is one of Specter’s bugaboos).  “I guess I’ll have to have my hair done more often,” she says.

•  Lindsey Graham is definitely worth the price of admission.  First he prompts Kagan to admit that “my political views are generally progressive” after she declined to characterize herself in anyway in response to previous senators’ queries.  Then he gets her to endorse her classmate Miguel Estrada for the Supreme Court (which may be of interest to General Petraeus, who testified before another Senate committee today).  Finally, in questioning regarding the Christmas Day bomber, he provokes an ethnic love-in after his question about where Kagan was on Christmas Day elicits the response, “well, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”  As he did with Sotomayor, Graham makes clear that he is likely to disagree with many of Kagan’s judicial decisions, but will vote for her regardless.

•  John Cornyn is the first senator to push the size and scope of government as a major line of questioning.  He asks her one of my pet questions: What limits are there on government?”  Kagan replies by reciting the Commerce Clause standards set forth in existing precedent, that Congress cannot touch activity that is not economic or that is left traditionally to state power. Well, that’s progress, but of course it raises the question of whether forcing someone to buy health insurance involves regulating economic activity and whether health care regulation is a traditional state responsibility.

•  Tom Coburn picks up where Cornyn left off, proposing a hypothetical bill requiring everyone to eat three fruits and three vegetables per day.  Kagan considers that a “dumb law” but says that “courts would be wrong to strike down laws simply because they are senseless.”  Well, ok, but is that particular senseless law unconstitutional?  Kagan seems pained (in real psychic discomfort) but Coburn lets her off the hook in reading from the Federalist Papers—a nice edition that should make for a good picture in the Oklahoma papers—and talking about the explosive growth of government.  Kagan shrugs off this discursion by citing Marbury v. Madison—“the role of the courts is to say what the law is”—and concluding that deficits aren’t a problem courts can resolve, at which point Coburn’s time runs out.  We will revisit this issue.

In short, Kagan is without doubt smarter, wittier, and more collegial than Sonia Sotomayor.  Unfortunately, that means she is likely to be more dangerous, a true “liberal Scalia.”  We now know that two of the catchphrases from these hearings will be that “I’m not going to grade cases”—why not?—and that everything the Court has ever decided is “well-settled law.”  In my mind, Kagan has not yet met the burden of persuasion regarding constitutional limits on government, which is my focus at these hearings.  I would look for Senators Sessions, Cornyn, and Coburn to hit this issue hard on the next go-around.

CP at Townhall

Sotomayor Doesn’t Deserve a Supreme Court Seat

Having sat through the entire gavel-to-gavel coverage of last week’s confirmation hearings, I still don’t know if I would vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor if I were a senator, I really don’t. Deciding how to vote on this is more than a simple matter of deciding whether she is “qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court—which is hard enough given there is no fixed qualification standard.

It also has to include how much deference you want to give the president, in general terms but also taking into account that Sotomayor will likely be confirmed and you want to position yourself politically for the next nominee. And it has to include, of course, how your constituents feel; while it’s cowardly to follow opinion polls blindly, you are accountable to those who sent you to Washington. There are many other considerations, both political and legal.

But I’m not a senator—or even a senator’s aide—so I don’t have to make that decision. As a constitutional lawyer, however, I can say that—even as most of Sotomayor’s opinions are uncontroversial—it is impossible to overlook the short thrift the judge gave to the judicial process in Ricci v. DeStefano and Didden v. Port Chester. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably against the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings.

Given Sotomayor’s repeated past rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective, stable, or discernible from written text, her inability during her testimony to explain her judicial philosophy—or even state her position on important cases and issues beyond an acceptance of precedent (by which she would no longer be bound in her new role)—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. Because of the nominee’s evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like her less now than I did before the hearings.

And so, on second thought, I do know how I would vote. During John Roberts’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin said that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.” I will follow this very apt “burden of proof” paradigm and respect the logic of Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat former judiciary committee chairman who at President Clinton’s impeachment trial curiously evoked Scottish law to vote “not proven.” Given the impropriety of citing foreign law (another issue on which the nominee failed to explain her “conversion” in hearing testimony), I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.

Lack of Deep Thinking = Belief in the Living Constitution?

In a twist on the “lack of deep thinking” idea, part of what might be going on in Sotomayor’s head—why she keeps answering questions about judicial philosophy with reference to precedent rather than constitutional first principles is because she’s not an originalist. How can we hope for her to tell us her understanding of the meaning of the constitutional text, after all, if that text’s meaning changes with the times?

For example, Stuart Smalley Al Franken asked Sotomayor point blank, “do you believe the right to privacy includes the right to have an abortion?” The nominee began here response with: “The Court has said….” That is, it is not the Constitution—whatever your view of it may be, whether you think it contains a right to abortion or not—that is the supreme law of the land, but what nine black-robed philosopher-kings say. Of course, if your (non-)theory of constitutional interpretation is to keep “improving” the document—and to keep one step ahead of public opinion, so judges can effect social “progress”—then it’s irrelevant what the Constitution said before the Supreme Court put its gloss on it.

And if you subscribe to this “living Constitution” or “active liberty” theory, then naturally the life experiences of a “wise Latina,” along with lessons from foreign and international law—which, Sotomayor said as recently as her April speech to ACLU, get a judge’s “creative juices flowing”—are all valid parts of your jurisprudential toolkit.

CP Townhall

Sotomayor Displays a Lack of Deep Thinking

It strikes me that Sotomayor has been fairly forthright in her responses to questioning, not hiding too much behind the tired cliché that she can’t answer a question because it could lead to prejudging a case—certainly far less than Ruth Bader Ginsburg and even John Roberts.  Still, on several important issues, such as property rights, national security law, abortion, and even her overall judicial philosophy, she has appeared disingenuous in saying that she has no firm views on the subject—hiding behind precedent again and again as if first principles didn’t exist.  In other words, she says a lot—displaying a broad knowledge of cases and legal doctrine—without answering larger questions.  She answers questions about what the law should be with what the law is, questions about what the Constitution says with what the Supreme Court has said about the Constitution.

This would be barely appropriate for a nominee to a lower court, who is, of course, bound by precedent.  But senators rightly want to know a Supreme Court nominee’s preferred legal theories, what her view of the Constitution is unencumbered by others’ attempts to interpret that document.

The more Sotomayor speaks, the more it becomes clear that these types of nonanswers, this inability to see (or lack of desire to express) a big picture view, is her own essence.  It continues a pattern that is evident from her judicial opinions, which are mostly unremarkable and, in the neutral sense of that term, unimpressive.  For all her career success and a personal story we should all celebrate, she is an average judge who apparently gives little thought to the broad swath of law and where her rulings fit into that.

That is, Sonia Sotomayor is not a Cass Sunstein or Larry Tribe or Elana Kagan or (fellow circuit judge) Diane Wood.  She is not a scholar or an ideologue.  Her liberality is reflexive and warmed-over, a product of the post-modern educational environment that formed her in the 1970s—complete with ethnic activism—but not an intellectual edifice.  This does not mean she isn’t a danger to liberty and the rule of law, or that her votes and opinions won’t harm the Constitution.  But it does indicate that, for all her bluster about being a “wise Latina,” she is little more than a left-leaning empty robe.

CP Townhall

Responses to My Comments About Sotomayor

As might be expected, I have received much email responding to my CNN.com commentary about Obama’s Supreme Court pick. Some of it has been favorable, some less so (and some simply incoherent). One particular email covered most if not all concerns – and quite thoughtfully at that – so I thought I would share this exchange with a reader who emailed me his comments:

I read  your piece “Sotomayor Pick Not Based on Merit”, where you write, “in over 10 years on the Second Circuit, she has not issued any important decisions”.

Granted that I’m a layman, not a legal scholar or anything - this list seems quite impressive, and, as a whole, pretty non-ideological.

In reviewing this list, I found myself disagreeing with her here and there, but I couldn’t find something that really irked me. Can you?

According to the authors, “Since joining the Second Circuit in 1998, Sotomayor has authored over 150 opinions, addressing a wide range of issues, in civil cases.” And that “To date, two of these decisions have been overturned by the Supreme Court; a third is under review and likely to be reversed.” 2 out of over 150, is not a bad record at all.

You also write that she’s “far less qualified for a seat on the Supreme Court than Judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland or Solicitor General Elena Kagan.”

I did a bit of research on them, and I’m not sure why you reached that conclusion. They are all qualified, in some respects Wood and Kagan are a bit more impressive, but you give the impression that she’s not highly qualified, and I don’t see evidence for that. On the contrary, she seems highly qualified - she has a long judicial and academic record, she has dealt with a myriad of issues, and has authored a vast amount of rulings, which, as far as I’ve seen, don’t appear to be ideological or particularly “activist.” She strikes me as someone balanced and sensible, with a slight tilt to the left.

You also write, “this does not a mean that Sotomayor is unqualified to be a judge — or less qualified to be a Supreme Court justice than, say, Harriet Miers” - but, c’mon, how can you even compare her to Miers? Miers was truly unqualified. She’s hardly intellectually impressive in any way, to put it mildly, and nothing about her record was impressive or even remotely suggesting she’s qualified to serve as a Justice. She was basically a manager of a law firm, with zero qualifications to serve as a SC justice. By even mentioning her name while discussing Sotomayor, you’re giving the impression there’s an analogy there, where there’s really none. Sotomayor is light-years ahead of Miers. You can’t be serious.

You also make a big issue over Ricci v. DeStefano. Well, I personally would side with the firemen, and it’s unfortunate that Sotomayor hasn’t, but to be fair, she hasn’t even written a decision about that.
We don’t know what her reasoning was. She merely signed, along with the rest of the panel, to uphold the lower court’s decision. It’s hard to build an entire case against her based on something like that. She has written over 150 other decisions, why not focus on them? Why pick one, that doesn’t even have any arguments in it, and make it the central issue, when there are over 150 reasoned decisions to analyze?
Why not review them, and give the public a deeper assessment, rather than focusing on ONE, which doesn’t even have any arguments or reasoning in it?

I’m generally a Cato fan, I get the mailings every day, I’m a moderate libertarian by philosophy, I’m just not sure why Cato is opposing her nomination. I like to think of Cato as non-partisan, just as I am, but on this issue your and Pilon’s opposition/criticism smacks from political partisanship and is not based on the evidence. So it seems to me.

Thanks for reading.

Here is my response:

Thanks for writing and for the thoughtful comments. A few points:

1. My argument is explicitly NOT that her opinions are disagreeable. I’ve waded through a fair number and read every public report on them produced thus far (including the very helpful SCOTUSblog summary you cite). Like you, some I agree with – most, actually, because most cases at this intermediate appellate level are not controversial (legally or politically), even if complex – some I don’t. But there’s just not much “there” there – intellectual depth, scholarly merit, etc. – at least by the elevated standards for elevation to the Supreme Court and in comparison to more accomplished jurists like Wood and Garland. She’s a competent judge, but we have 500 of those in the federal judiciary alone. (And none of this is to disparage her tremendous personal story; I write this from Princeton, where she had a truly impressive four years.)

2. Her reversal rate (I think there are six cases now) is a non-issue. The Supreme Court reverses over 60% of cases it hears and hears fewer than 2% of cases it is asked to review. So, statistically, we can say nothing about Sotomayor in that sense. A couple of her reversals are a bit strange, but on technical issues that, again, don’t lend much to the overall debate.

3. Yes, she’s much more qualified than Miers (though it’s a little unfair to say Miers was a mere “law firm manager” – she was White House counsel and apparently a decent lawyer in private practice).  I threw that line in there to show I can pick on Republican nominees too.

4. While Roger, whom I copy here, has discussed suspicions of Sotomayor’s activism or radicalness – and I think it’s clear she has more of those tendencies than Wood or Kagan – this is not the thrust of the my CNN commentary. We just can’t tell from her opinions, which are all over the map – other than the speeches at Berkely and Duke and then the Ricci case.

5. Ricci is important for two reasons: a) on the merits, the decision is blatant racial discrimination – and the Supreme Court looks likely to overturn Sotomayor’s panel; b) perhaps more importantly, the failure to grapple with the complex constitutional and statutory issues is a serious dereliction of judicial duty – as pointed out by Jose Cabranes in his dissent from denial of en banc rehearing. Regardless of the merits of the case, the way it was handled – as a per curiam summary affirmance released late on a Friday, meant to sweep the case under the rug – is outrageous. Sotomayor was 100% complicit in that.

6. In no way are my (or Roger’s) comments partisan. Cato’s interest here isn’t in any particular personality but rather: 1) that official appointments be made irrespective of racial/ethnic/identity politics, and 2) even more importantly, that the Supreme Court interpret the Constitution in a way that treats the judicial enterprise not as one of enforcing social justice or otherwise rewriting the law it when a result is inconvenient. The talk of “empathy” is disturbing precisely because it is the antithesis of the rule of law. And this is why Republican Judiciary Committee members must generate a public debate on judicial philosophy and not merely attempt to tear down this nominee. If they don’t demand substantive answers on serious constitutional questions, they will be complicit in the deterioration of our confirmation processes.

All the best,
Ilya

I look forward to following and commenting further as the confirmation process plays itself out.

Republican Strategy on the Supreme Court Vacancy

President Obama is not the only one with a difficult decision to make in the face of mounting pressure from various groups.  The Republicans will have to decide what posture to take: combative or deferential, political or analytical.

With Obama still at the height of his popularity, and with solid Democratic control of the Senate (even without Arlen Specter and Al Franken), the GOP is unlikely to sustain a filibuster or generate significant opposition to any but the most extreme nominee — such as the radical transnationalist Harold Koh, whose nomination to be the State Department’s head lawyer is currently pending.

What Republicans should do instead is force a full public debate about constitutional interpretation and judicial philosophy, laying out in vivid detail what kind of judges they want.  Instead of shrilly opposing whomever Obama nominates on partisan grounds, now is the time to show the American people the stark differences between the two parties on one of the few issues on which the stated Republican view continues to command strong and steady support nationwide.  If the party is serious about constitutionalism and the rule of law, it should use this opportunity for education, not grandstanding.