Professor Noah Feldman has written a column at Slate that asks whether the reputations of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan will one day occupy the same rarefied air as those of Justices Black and Frankfurter. The comparison, extrapolated from a single Sotomayor dissent from denial of certiorari in a habeas case this term and nothing at all from Kagan, seems little more than an attempt to peddle his new book, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices, in which he explores the rivalries and relationships of Justices Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, and Jackson.
I am eager to read Feldman’s book–I just badgered Georgetown’s law library today about when it is slated to arrive–because I have long been fascinated by the Court’s primordial ideological oozing between 1937 and 1954. FDR appointed nine justices, all supporters of the New Deal’s constitutionality. They helped vanquish conservatism as it was known and realign partisan politics such that both Republicans and Democrats would support, or at least did not reject, the New Deal for the next half-century.
Beyond burying Lochnerism, however, the nine “young” men were left to their own devices in molding a jurisprudence for the modern era, when end of the Depression began the fraying of FDR’s big tent. World War II led to questions about executive power. The start of the Cold War returned to the Court’s docket questions of free speech rights of political dissidents. And postwar America, after destroying the Nazis in Europe, was finally forced to reckon with its own racist regimes.
The greatness of these questions required great answers. And those answers, from judicial restraint to strident activism, from originalism to living constitutionalism, all variations on even older themes of principle versus pragmatism, remain with us today.
So I found myself puzzling over Feldman’s concluding paragraph:
[O]ne lesson of Roosevelt’s court—more relevant than ever—is that strong rivalries and personalities make great justices. No fewer than four of Roosevelt’s appointees—Black, Douglas, Frankfurter, and Jackson—became towering figures in judicial history. In recent years, we have had on the left and center polite justices who do not vie for leadership—and who do not produce comparably incandescent constitutional ideas or judicial opinions. As we are beginning to see, the new justices on the Roberts Court have the chance to do better. The first move was Sotomayor’s. Will Kagan go next?
Strong rivalries and personalities are not enough to make great justices. The times must also require greatness. And greatness does not come by playing defense, for which the Court’s liberal wing has been increasingly relegated since the 1970s. Meanwhile, the left’s big offensives are towards full gay equality and death penalty abolition, and getting there depends, at least for now, on Justice Kennedy’s sense of his own greatness.
It’s hard to see right now when, if ever, the next great political realignment will occur. History says such realignments revolve around one great issue, and we’ve had only three: Revolution, Civil War, Depression. Gay rights and the death penalty, however huge they are for those in the arena now, are not epoch-defining issues that, once resolved, will bring us into a brave new world both politically and jurisprudentially. For his part, Feldman, in a New York Times Magazine article over the summer, proposed the “rediscovery” of liberal economic jurisprudence as a way to create room for the left’s greatness on the Court, but there’s a difference between quoting Holmes and Brandeis and being Holmes or Brandeis. Similarly, the conservative justices will be revisiting history, not writing it anew, if they follow the right’s flirtation with neo-Lochnerism into the death of Obamacare, and finally achieve the end of affirmative action and the reversal of Roe.
This is not to say that Sotomayor and Kagan, or Roberts and Alito, will not rise to the greatness of their most incandescent predecessors. But I’d rather have a bench full of moderates often politely–and, on occasion, forcefully–making inevitable progress in our imperfect, somewhat stable society than suffer through the doom and gloom that gives birth to a few squabbling greats.
This piece is cross-posted at The CockleBur.