Jeffrey Rosen has a very long, but very good, essay/review in The New Republic of Melvin Urofsky’s Brandeis biography. Entitled “Why Brandeis Matters,” the piece begins with an examination of Brandeis’s crusade against corporate and governmental bigness as applied to the Roberts Court’s reflection of today’s current economic and political climate and ends with an account of his Zionism as symbolic of his devotion to cultural pluralism.
In between these sections, Rosen provides a timely passage for the Kagan hearings:
In addition to combining judicial restraint with passionate anti-corporate progressivism, Brandeis’s Liggett dissent exemplified a third aspect of his judicial philosophy: his commitment to interpreting the ideals of the Founders in light of the entire range of constitutional history. In this sense, Brandeis provides an inspiring model for citizens today who are searching for an alternative to the rigid originalism championed by some Roberts Court conservatives, and also for an alternative to the untethered “living constitutionalism” of some Warren Court liberals. Brandeis combines elements of originalism and living constitutionalism into an approach that might be called living originalism.
Brandeis believed that the values of the Founders were immutable, but had to be translated into a very different world in light of dramatic changes in society, technology, and economics. He believed in constitutional change—in a talk called “The Living Law,” he charged that the law had “not kept pace with the rapid development of our political, economic, and social ideals” and said “the challenge of legal justice [was] to conform to our contemporary conceptions of social justice.” But Brandeis insisted that efforts to render constitutional values in a contemporary vocabulary always had to be rooted in the text and in the broad unchanging ideals of the Framers. By interpreting the values of the Framers in light of progressive movements across the range of American history, Brandeis believed they could be preserved in a way that served the needs of citizens in the here and now—which is, after all, what the Constitution was written to do.
This “living originalism”–not to be confused with the “restrained activism” I discussed in the post below–was on display today as Solicitor General Kagan sought to bust the originalist/activist binary.
In today’s New York Times Week in Review section, Peter Baker writes of “Obama v. Roberts: The Struggle to Come“:
The urgency is greater this year since the Citizens United decision in January, in which the Roberts court threw out precedents to rule that corporations have First Amendment rights to spend money in election campaigns. Advisers said the ruling crystallized for Mr. Obama just how sweeping the chief justice was willing to be. Indeed, some around the president suspect that Chief Justice Roberts, after moving incrementally in his first few years on the bench, has taken a more assertive approach since Mr. Obama took office.
This assertion defies facts. In fact, I began F1@1F to explore whether the opposite holds true–that Chief Justice Roberts has guided the Court more modestly under Democratic electoral dominance than he had at the start of his Chiefdom. From F1@1F’s very first post:
During the 2006-07 term, the first full term in which both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito served together, Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. Meanwhile, the Roberts Court aggressively pushed rightward on abortion, student speech, school desegregation, gender discrimination, and campaign finance. The Court’s 2007-08 term proceeded alongside a divided government with a Republican President and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The Court reflected the division: President Bush, seeking a legacy, saw a conservative interpretation of the Second Amendment win out in Heller; the Democratic Congress, elected in a wave of anti-war sentiment, found its hostility to Bush’s war on terror policies reflected in the Court’s granting habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees in Boumediene. Last term, which straddled the Bush and Obama presidencies, found the Court taking a blockbuster case in in September 2008 that threatened to invalidate a key civil rights provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but pulled back with an 8-1 decision in June 2009 upholding the provision. This term, the first one fully operating alongside a Democratic Presidency and Congress, is progressing in an almost post-partisan fashion, as if the conservative Court has taken to heart President Obama’s overtures to the Right unwelcome among Congressional Republicans. The Court is reckoning with one case that pits liberal values against liberal values, another in which two conservative values clash; further, McDonald v. City of Chicago may result in a grand bargain in which the conservative Heller majority can extend its interpretation of the Second Amendment to the states by breathing new life into a clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that could strengthen constitutional protection for liberal causes. In fact, the only case that threatens a drastic shift to the right in a politically salient issue is Citizens United, the campaing finance case I camped out for in September.
Since I wrote that in December, Citizens United has emerged, as expected, as the Court’s one big rightward expenditure of its political capital this term. And although the McDonald oral argument put to death my speculation of a grand bargain between the Court’s liberal and conservative blocs, its result–incorporation of the Second Amendment to the states–will not cause a national backlash and political firestorm.
The OT09 docket’s conspicuous absence of any other red-hot button case is, in my opinion, hardly an accident. Roberts knows just how much–or little–political capital his Court possesses to achieve conservative gains under a Democratic electoral mandate, and he has picked his battles accordingly. Baker’s sources are in plain error to use Citizens United as proof of a more aggressive, confrontational Roberts Court.
Baker’s article was not a total wash, however. Noting the Chief Justice and the President’s public colloquy of late, the article concludes:
The debate between the men, by necessity, takes place in this way — indirectly, and soon through the confirmation hearing of a new nominee. Christopher Edley Jr., an Obama adviser and dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, said it was a shame the two could not have at it one on one.
“Televise this chief justice and this president on stage at the Kennedy Center for three hours talking about the role of government and the future of our polity,” Mr. Edley said. “This historic clash of intellectual titans would be the most powerful civics lesson since the Federalist Papers, and we could sure use it.”
We sure could.
UPDATE: Meanwhile, in The New Republic, Barry Friedman and Jeff Rosen support what I’ve written here several times over (or the other way around – as they are law professors who write books, not blogs):
How will the Supreme Court respond to these attempts to enlist it in a war with the president and Congress? If history is any predictor, the justices won’t be interested in a sustained assault. As both of us have written in recent books, on the big issues, over time, the Court tends to come into line with public opinion. Think here of gay rights, women’s rights, and abortion. And when the Court has wandered outside the mainstream–on issues like the death penalty or economic regulation–it has quickly retreated after encountering resistance from the public, Congress, or the president. The Court, in other words, is very sensitive to the possibility of backlash against its actions; and if anything, the heated reaction to its recent decision striking down campaign finance restrictions on corporations is only likely to make it more so.
Which brings us to the Roberts Court. Is it likely to stand in the way of Obama and the Democrats’ agenda? What will happen, in particular, with health care?
We aren’t seers, and a lot can happen before any of this makes its way to the Court. But nothing we’ve seen—including January’s decision in Citizens United—leads us to believe that the Court is likely to behave differently in the future than it has in the past.
Which means that the Court is going to be hesitant to launch a sustained challenge to the core of the Democratic agenda. And in the unlikely (but not impossible) event that it does decide to launch a sustained challenge, the justices will find themselves under attack in return as long as the Democrats still have popular support. If that happens, history suggests that such attacks on the Court will eventually precipitate some kind of judicial retreat.
The Internet is loaded with news blogs and other media that allow everyday citizens to pontificate on the news cycle. But it’s much harder to find sites driven by people who want to report the news independently. We meet a pair of local independent journalists who have taken reporting into their own hands — delivering daily coverage of the Supreme Court and Major League Baseball.
Audio archives, transcripts and CDs will be available approximately 15 minutes after the program ends.
If you’re not in the DC area or near a radio, you can listen live here. As soon as I get a chance tomorrow, I’ll post the recorded audio link.
One of the most gratifying parts of this project has been meeting all sorts of people in the early morning line. And as it turns out, I’m not the only person who goes home and writes about the experience.
I offer anyone who has stood in line with me–or in line without me–who has written about his or her experience at the Court to send me a link, and I will post it here.
The first blogger in my Friends of F1@1F feature is Brandon Forbes. Forbes was twenty-sixth in line for Tuesday morning’s arguments and blogs at Good Gov, Y’all. He recapped his experience outside and inside the Court with an entry titled, “Sitting Courtside, Breyer & Scalia Give Me Hi-Fives,” in which, among other things, he posited his own thoughts on a conversation we had while shivering on First Street:
In our pre-dawn discussion, Mike voiced his love of The Brethren, an Armstrong and Woodward SCOTUS tell-all that caused much controversy when it was published in the ‘late 70s with its inside look at the Burger Court and which I tried to read in high school and now need to re-read. Anyway, he made an interesting case for Potter Stewart as being the last “pure judge” on the Court, meaning, I think, that he was appointed outside of the ideological box that has been present in judicial discourse since the late ’70s. One could make the case that Stevens also fits this bill, at least at his appointment, though he has drifted further and further to the left in reaction to the Rehnquist/Scalia conservatism that emerged in the late ’80s, a conservatism which now generally wins if the current Court splits 5-4 (see Citizens United). I’d like to look into this more, but my initial thought is that Roe might be responsible for this divide, much in the same way as West Coast Hotel v. Parrish could be seen as the dividing line for the modern interpretation of the Commerce Clause. In other words, judges appointed after Roe have the ideological boxes of the culture wars to deal with before they get on the Court just as judges after West Coast Hotel had the necessity of having a robust interpretation of the Commerce Clause as requisite for getting on the Court. But maybe that’s a bit of a convoluted analogy. A way to say it simpler might be: Roe v. Wade has been the benchmark case since 1973 for determining who gets on the Supreme Court (either supportive or against), and Stewart didn’t have to deal with that hanging over his confirmation. Interesting discussion, anyway.
I do, in fact, believe that Justice Stevens does fit the Stewart mold, but Brandon makes a good point that this has been obscured by the Court’s post-Roe politicization, in which the Court, as Jeffrey Toobin recently noted, “has become a partisan battlefield.”
Indeed, Stevens has consciously strived for the survival of Stewart’s legacy despite the rise of rigid ideology on the Court. As Jeffrey Rosen wrote in 2007,
Stevens, however, is an improbable liberal icon. “I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all,” he told me during a recent interview in his chambers, laughing and shaking his head. “I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.” Stevens said that his views haven’t changed since 1975, when as a moderate Republican he was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the Supreme Court. Stevens’s judicial hero is Potter Stewart, the Republican centrist, whom Stevens has said he admires more than all of the other justices with whom he has served. He considers himself a “judicial conservative,” he said, and only appears liberal today because he has been surrounded by increasingly conservative colleagues. “Including myself,” he said, “every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell” — nominated by Richard Nixon in 1971 — “has been more conservative than his or her predecessor. Except maybe Justice Ginsburg. That’s bound to have an effect on the court.”
In his one of his final written opinions, Justice Souter, another judge in the Stewart–if not Harlan II–mold of judicial conservatism, planted a seed of wisdom for future justices who follow in his and Stevens’s footsteps once today’s age of politically-aligned ideology subsides:
Changes in societal understanding of the fundamental reasonableness of government actions work out in much the same way that individuals reconsider issues of fundamental belief. We can change our own inherited views just so fast, and a person is not labeled a stick-in-the-mud for refusing to endorse a new moral claim without having some time to work through it intellectually and emotionally. Just as attachment to the familiar and the limits of experience affect the capacity of an individual to see the potential legitimacy of a moral position, the broader society needs the chance to take part in the dialectic of public and political back and forth about a new liberty claim before it makes sense to declare unsympathetic state or national laws arbitrary to the point of being unconstitutional. The time required is a matter for judgment depending on the issue involved, but the need for some time to pass before a court entertains a substantive due process claim on the subject is not merely the requirement of judicial restraint as a general approach, but a doctrinal demand to be satisfied before an allegedly lagging legal regime can be held to lie beyond the discretion of reasonable political judgment.
The whole dissent is worth reading. I am convinced that a generation from now, Souter’s parting words will steer a Court that reflects a society confident enough to allow a judge to judge, rather than force a justice to fit facts into predetermined ideological frameworks. Just as Harlan and Stewart, both Eisenhower nominees, entered the Warren Court comparatively conservative to their stridently liberal brethren but now appear to be sober moderates, so too will Stevens and Souter be remembered as moderate despite their reputation as liberals from serving in a politically distorted age on the Court.
In other words, the principled judging qua judging of Harlan, Stewart, Stevens, and Souter has been an enduring casualty of the Warren and early Burger Courts’ politically liberal overreach and the subsequent politically conservative overcorrection of the Rehnquist and early Roberts Courts.
But I don’t think it is too offensive for this Jew to say on this Easter day that the moderates’ jurisprudence will be resurrected by a confident public that trusts judges’ judgment and votes for Presidents and Senators that reflect America’s transcending the current culture wars.
If this vision of the late Roberts Court looks more like the apocalypse scenes in the Book of Revelations than the Gospel, then you should check out Josh Blackman’s blog. Blackman and I got to know each other as we liveblogged the McDonald line. In addition to his libertarian-originalist blogging and his FantasySCOTUS league, Blackman has beatified, through non-profit incorporation, the first Justice Harlan as the Court’s proto-originalist. Through his Harlan Institute, Blackman seeks to deepen schoolchildrens’ understanding of the Constitution–an honorable goal, even if in pursuing it, he hopes to perpetuate a particular ideology into the next generation that gets in the way of my own vision for how we view the Court and politics.
But I come not to quibble the future with Josh, but rather to praise his prankster skills. Yesterday, he posted a story titled, “FantasySCOTUS.net to receive 30 min advance notice before opinions issued to curb cheating“:
When I mentioned this unfortunate fact [of FantasySCOTUS cheating] to friends at the Supreme Court, they clued me into a little known SCOTUS secret. Certain reporters, news agencies, and blogs, receive 30 minute advance notice before opinions are issued. While the Court does not release the holding of the opinion, the Clerk of the Court sends a brief e-mail, listing the opinions that will be issued.
At first I was incredulous, and didn’t believe this was possible. But at some point during the Rehnquist Court, Nina Totenberg, the doyenne of One First Street, used her enormous clout to push for this privilege. She was tired of hiking to the Court on days when lousy opinions were issued. Once she asked for it, the Court could not say no. Apparently, Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog has been receiving these tips for years. No wonder he is always able to get post such thorough summaries so quickly.
Like any cert grant, in order to qualify for this special privilege, the Rule of 4 applies. Justice Sotomayor came through, and joined the Chief Justice, Justice Alito, and Justice Thomas. Apparently the Junior Justice is a serious Fantasy Sports fan, and fell in love with the league, and was appalled that people would cheat. Sadly, Justice Scalia decided to recuse, due to some of my recent publications criticizing his views in McDonald.
Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg, dissented from the issuance of our petition. He does not seem to be a fan of FantasySCOTUS.net. In a verbose opinion, he wrote that while liberty must be active, fantasy court leagues must be passive, and we were not worthy of this privilege. Paraphrasing Chief Justice Roberts famous admonition from Parents Involved, Justice Breyer wrote “the way to end lame fantasy sports leagues is to end lame fantasy sports leagues.”
That’s a hell of a clever April Fools’ joke. Seems credible at first, but steadily slides into farce and, ultimately, self-deprecation. Very good stuff.
If you have written about your SCOTUS experience, please do send me the link. If I get a few more stories, I will also add an F1@1F Friends link to my blogroll.
UPDATE: Josh Blackman writes in,
“Nice dig at Harlan [Institute] . It really isn’t ideological. [Harlan Institute's] not about institutionalizing originalism. Its about teaching about the history of the constitution to influence decisionmaking. There is a difference. If I do my job right w harlan, kids will learn enough about history to make themselves informed and need not reach the results I wish.”
I quibble no longer: that’s an absolutely honorable goal.
Easter is actually on Sunday. Jesus is still technically “dead” right now. The Christians will be unhappy if you resurrect him too soon.
Point taken. I’ll be sticking to my matzoh from now on. At least Brandon and I will be on the same page for who to root for in the Final Four tomorrow.
UPDATE III: One day after this post, the NYT has published an interview with Justice Stevens by Adam Liptak. Along with getting even closer to Justice Stevens’s internal deliberations upon his perhaps-imminent retirement, the interview also gets to Justice Stevens’s self-conception as a judicial conservative by touching upon his majority opinion in Kelo and the final paragraph of his Baze v. Rees concurrence:
His views have generally remained stable, he said, while the court has drifted to the right over time. “To the extent I look back at earlier situations,” he said, “I really don’t think I’ve changed all that much.”
Often, he added, the law requires a certain result, as in the court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which allowed local governments to use the power of eminent domain to take private property for business development.
“The Kelo case was one of my most unpopular opinions, and that was one where I thought the law really was pretty well settled on the particular point,” he said.
Asked if he would have answered the question presented in the case differently had he instead been a legislator, Justice Stevens said probably yes.
In the area of capital punishment, though, he said his views had shifted.
“I certainly would not have expected during my first years on the court to have written an opinion like I did in Baze,” he said, referring to Baze v. Rees, the 2008 decision that rejected a challenge to lethal injections. Though Justice Stevens voted with the majority, he wrote that he had come to the conclusion that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment. He went on to say that his conclusion did not justify “a refusal to respect precedents that remain a part of our law.”
“I’m still a member of the court, and I still have to work,” Justice Stevens said. “I never really agreed with Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall that your own personal view on the issue should prevent you from participating. You’re still a member of the team, and the team has to confront the problem.”
But that did not mean Justice Stevens, who in 1976 voted to reinstate the death penalty, was satisfied with the court’s capital jurisprudence.
“There are a number of death cases that troubled me,” he said. The Baze opinion, he added, “was really my reaction to the developing jurisprudence, which I think moved in a direction that I didn’t expect and is not correct.”
He’s too detached and cerebral. Too deferential to Congress. Too willing to compromise. And he’s too much of a law professor and not enough of a commander in chief, as Sarah Palin recently admonished.
These are some of the qualities for which the president, rightly or wrongly, is criticized. They are also the qualities that make him well suited for another steady job on the federal payroll: Barack Obama, Supreme Court justice.
Rosen continues with a couple of his fantasy scenarios:
It would be unusual, but not difficult, for Obama to get himself on the Supreme Court. He could nominate himself to replace John Paul Stevens, for example, or he could gamble and promise Hillary Rodham Clinton that he won’t run for reelection in 2012 in exchange for a pledge of appointment to the next vacancy.
I believe my fun with the future is less fantastical, at least in terms of a Justice Obama timeline. As I implied in one of my very first F1@1F posts, should there be a Democratic President at the dawn of the next decade, Obama is more likely to succeed Scalia than he is to swap himself out for Ginsburg during his own presidency.
Even if my own peyote prediction trumps Rosen’s silly scenarios, the rest of Rosen’s column remains quite compelling. He invokes Justice Brandeis as the prototype for a Justice Obama:
Brandeis, who served on the high court from 1916 to 1939, offers a good model for Obama. Known as “the people’s lawyer,” he was an economic populist, criticizing the “curse of bigness” that led oligarchs such as J.P. Morgan to threaten the entire financial system by taking reckless risks with “other people’s money” and then to demand government bailouts after their bad bets. But Brandeis opposed bigness in government as well as in the private sector, and during the New Deal he preferred regulations that prevented companies from getting too large in the first place — such as the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial from investment banking — rather than the creation of huge federal bureaucracies to regulate the economy.
On the high court, Brandeis generally stood for judicial restraint, denouncing conservatives for striking down progressive state economic regulations. But he also believed fiercely in the First Amendment and freedom from unreasonable searches. Both a pragmatist and a civil libertarian, he provides a judicial ideal for Obama, whose record resembles his in many respects.
Besides Obama’s judicial qualities listed by Rosen, Obama also has an ambitious vision of his place in history. But he also knows that making history is all in the timing, and he won’t make history by simply becoming a Justice. Even if he’d be the first Justice from Hawaii, he wouldn’t be the first Harvard Law graduate, University of Chicago professor, Senator, African-American, or President to turn up on the Court.
But he could be the momentous fifth vote to turn the Court back to the left. He won’t make that history if he replaces Stevens or Ginsburg. And don’t think Obama doesn’t know that–if Obama has his eye on the Court, of course.
And then, there was last term’s voting-rights case, in which Roberts wrote an 8-1 decision rejecting a broad constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act and instead deciding the case on technical grounds. For those who wanted to believe that Roberts was a genuine conciliator, this was a powerful piece of evidence. Like others, I praised his performance in the case as an act of judicial statesmanship.
But, in retrospect, the ruling may have been less statesmanlike than it appeared. According to a source who was briefed on the deliberations in the case, Anthony Kennedy was initially ready to join Roberts and the other conservatives in issuing a sweeping 5-4 decision, striking down the Voting Rights Act on constitutional grounds. But the four liberal justices threatened to write a strong dissent that would have accused the majority of misconstruing landmark precedents about congressional power. What happened next is unclear, but the most likely possibilities are either that Kennedy got cold feet or that Roberts backed down. The Voting Rights Act survived, but what looked from the outside like an act of judicial statesmanship by Roberts may have in fact been a strategic retreat. Moreover, rather than following the principled alternative suggested by David Souter at the oral argument–holding that the people who were challenging the Voting Rights Act had no standing to bring the lawsuit–Roberts opted to rewrite the statute in a way that Congress never intended. That way, Roberts was still able to express his constitutional doubts about the law-as well as his doubts about landmark Supreme Court precedents from the civil rights era, which he mischaracterized and seemed ready to overrule.
The voting-rights case may help explain why Roberts didn’t take a similarly conciliatory posture in Citizens United. After all, one was certainly available. Just as Roberts had implausibly but strategically held in the voting-rights case that Congress intended to let election districts bail out of federal supervision, he could have held–far more plausibly–in Citizens United that Congress never intended to regulate video-on-demand or groups with minimal corporate funding. As with the voting-rights case, judicial creativity could have been justified in the name of judicial restraint.
There is, of course, a charitable explanation for why Roberts took the conciliatory approach in one case but not the other: namely, that he felt the principles involved in Citizens United were somehow more important and therefore less amenable to compromise. As he told me in our 2006 interview, he has strong views that he, like his hero John Marshall, is not willing to bargain away. Marshall, Roberts said, “was not going to compromise his principles, and I don’t think there’s any example of his doing that in his jurisprudence.”
But a less charitable explanation for the difference between the two cases is that Roberts didn’t compromise on Citizens United because, this time, he simply didn’t have to.
Setting aside Rosen’s brief and remarkable peek into the NAMUDNO deliberations, this passage also has echoes of F1@1F’s main thesis: the Court is guided by a Chief Justice who picks his battles wisely, preserving the Court’s political capital only for the cases most near to movement conservatism’s heart. Rosen takes this point, but wavers in conclusion:
It’s impossible, at the moment, to tell whether the reaction to Citizens United will be the beginning of a torrential backlash or will fade into the ether. But John Roberts is now entering politically hazardous territory. Without being confident either way, I still hope that he has enough political savvy and historical perspective to recognize and avoid the shoals ahead. There’s little doubt, however, that the success or failure of his tenure will turn on his ability to align his promises of restraint with the reality of his performance. Roberts may feel just as confident that he knows the “right” answer in cases like Peek-a-Boo as he did in Citizens United. But political backlashes are hard to predict, contested constitutional visions can’t be successfully imposed by 5-4 majorities, and challenging the president and Congress on matters they care intensely about is a dangerous game. We’ve seen wellintentioned but unrestrained chief justices overplay their hands in the past–and it always ends badly for the Court.
I believe Roberts has the political sense to avoid an all-out clash with the elected branches and that the Court has formed its docket and made its decisions accordingly. F1@1F’s mission is to test that hypothesis through oral argument and opinion analysis as well as interviews with those interested enough to get in the Court’s general admission line. Given the expected longevity of the Roberts Court, this term alone, even set against the trend of the previous three terms, will hardly be determinative. But it will be informative.