Friday, January 22, 2010

Thoughts on the Supreme Court

I've grown weary of the Supreme Court. Maybe part of this is just the cumulative fatigue of the two and a half years I've spent reading their opinions. Or maybe I'm just jealous that the nature of legal writing requires me to eschew adjectives and use only the shortest words I can find, no matter how unappealing they may be, while Justice Kennedy gets to write like a paid-by-the-word 19th-century novelist. And Citizens United certainly doesn't make me any fonder of the Roberts Court.

In any event, I question whether the Supreme Court is what it ought to be. Sometimes I think about the Court as a kind of Council of Elders, appointed for life to interpret the sacred writings of our forefathers and force the modern world to reconcile itself to their vision. Uniquely qualified to tell us what Madison and the rest would have thought about issues that they could not have possibly contemplated arising in their tiny agrarian republic, the Council of Elders issues unreviewable decisions based on judicial philosophies that often have little to do with the world as it is. The good news here is that there's at least a level of independence to the court under this view, since some of the underlying judicial philosophies defy easy liberal/conservative categorization. The bad news lies in the disconnect between the Court and the country that feels the effects of its decisions.

Other times I think about the Court as a superlegislature. With the power to ratify the laws it approves of and veto the rest, it is as nakedly partisan as any other branch of government. Presidents choose their nominees from the pool of people best positioned to hold the party line for future decades. The good news here is that the rules of the game, while unofficial, are known to all, so no one party is really rigging the system at the expense of the other. The bad news is that a disingenuous system like this somewhat undermines the dignity of the institution.

Yet the appointment of Justice Sotomayor is a welcome reminder that the way individual judges approach their duties can still yield positive results, even in a flawed system. Her now-infamous "wise Latina" comment bothered me at first, but having spent a lot of time thinking about the type of thinking that it reflects, I now think, or at least hope, that it signals the kind of jurisprudence that I'd like to see more of. I don't think that we gain much by expecting our judges to not be human. Experience breeds understanding, and need not be mutually exclusive with objectivity.

Increasingly I wonder whether our political institutions still have the capacity to accomplish their prescribed tasks, or whether the country has changed so much since the framing of the Constitution that our tripartite system in its current form is still up to the challenge. Judicial activism is a term with pejorative connotations, but I have a hard time opposing a philosophy that actually strengthens the connections between our highest court and the world we live in.

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