Commentary

Cronyism

Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
During the Clinton impeachment imbroglio, Alexander Hamilton’s definition of “impeachable offense” from Federalist No. 65 was plastered from one end of the media to the other. With the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, get ready for another passage from Hamilton to get similar play — this one from Federalist No. 76:

“To what purpose then require the co-operation of the Senate? I answer, that the necessity of their concurrence would have a powerful, though, in general, a silent operation. It would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity… He would be both ashamed and afraid to bring forward, for the most distinguished or lucrative stations, candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.” (The italics are mine.)

Harriet Miers is not just the close confidante of the president in her capacity as his staff secretary and then as White House counsel. She also was George W. Bush’s personal lawyer. Apart from nominating his brother or former business partner, it is hard to see how the president could have selected someone who fit Hamilton’s description any more closely. Imagine the reaction of Republicans if President Clinton had nominated Deputy White House Counsel Cheryl Mills, who had ably represented him during his impeachment proceedings, to the Supreme Court. How about Bernie Nussbaum?

As the quote from Hamilton suggests, the core purpose of Senate confirmation of presidential nominees is to screen out the appointment of “cronies,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a close friend especially of long standing.” Cronyism is bad not only because it leads to less qualified judges, but also because we want a judiciary with independence from the executive branch. A longtime friend of the president who has served as his close personal and political adviser and confidante, no matter how fine a lawyer, can hardly be expected to be sufficiently independent — especially during the remaining term of her former boss.

By characterizing this appointment as cronyism, I mean to cast no aspersions on Ms. Miers. I imagine she is an intelligent and able lawyer. To hold down the spot of White House counsel she must be that and more. She must also be personally loyal to the president and an effective bureaucratic infighter, two attributes that are not on the top of the list of qualifications for the Supreme Court.

To be qualified, a Supreme Court justice must have more than credentials; she must have a well-considered “judicial philosophy,” by which is meant an internalized view of the Constitution and the role of a justice that will guide her through the constitutional minefield that the Supreme Court must navigate. Nothing in Harriet Miers’s professional background called upon her to develop considered views on the extent of congressional powers, the separation of powers, the role of judicial precedent, the importance of states in the federal system, or the need for judges to protect both the enumerated and unenumerated rights retained by the people. It is not enough simply to have private opinions on these complex matters; a prospective justice needs to have wrestled with them in all their complexity before attaining the sort of judgment that decision-making at the Supreme Court level requires, especially in the face of executive or congressional disagreement.

Even a star quarterback with years of high school and college football under his belt takes years of experience and hard knocks to develop the knowledge and instincts needed to survive in the NFL. The Supreme Court is the big league of the legal profession, and Ms. Miers has never even played the judicial equivalent of high school ball, much less won a Heisman Trophy.

Ms. Miers would be well qualified for a seat on a court of appeals, where she could develop a grasp of all these important issues. She would then have to decide what role text and original meaning should play in constitutional interpretation in the context of close cases and very difficult decisions. The Supreme Court is no place to confront these issues for the very first time.

Given her lack of experience, does anyone doubt that Ms. Miers’s only qualification to be a Supreme Court justice is her close connection to the president? Would the president have ever picked her if she had not been his lawyer, his close confidante, and his adviser? Of course, Hamilton also thought that the existence of Senate confirmation would deter the nomination of cronies:

“The possibility of rejection would be a strong motive to care in proposing. The danger to his own reputation, and, in the case of an elective magistrate, to his political existence, from betraying a spirit of favoritism, or an unbecoming pursuit of popularity, to the observation of a body whose opinion would have great weight in forming that of the public, could not fail to operate as a barrier to the one and to the other.”

While the Senate once successfully resisted President Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to nominate his own highly able crony, Abe Fortas, to be chief justice, perhaps the performance of senators during the Roberts nomination reduced the deterrent effect of “advise and consent.” Judiciary Committee Democrats spent half their time making speeches rather than questioning. What questions they did ask were not carefully designed to ferret out the nominee’s judicial philosophy, favoring instead to inquire about his feelings, or whether he would stand up for the “little guy,” or bemoaning his refusal to telegraph how he would rule on particular cases likely to come before the court.

For their part, Senate Republicans were content to parrot the empty line that a judge “should follow the law and not legislate from the bench.” Sit tight and vote seemed to be their approach. By refusing to demand a nominee with a judicial philosophy of adherence to the text of the Constitution — the whole text, including the parts that limit federal and state powers — Republicans did nothing to induce the White House to send up a nominee who was at least as committed to limits on federal power as Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had been.

Times like these demand a justice with a firm grasp on constitutional text, history and principles. Someone who can resist the severe pressure brought by Congress, by the executive branch, by state and local governments, and also by fellow justices to exceed the Constitution’s limits on government power. Does anything in her record suggest that Harriet Miers will be that sort of justice? We do not need to wait for Senate hearings to answer this question. What hearings will tell us, however, is whether the Senate, too, will succumb, in Hamilton’s words, to “a spirit of favoritism.”

Randy Barnett, a Cato Senior Fellow, is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Law at Boston University and the author of Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (Princeton, 2004).