Dear Loyal Readers Who Noticed That I Did Not Keep My Usual Posting Schedule Last Week,
Last Monday I posted a longer than ordinary essay about the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. Because of its length, I had planned to skip my usual Wednesday post and resume this blog on Friday, but that day passed, too, barren of my wit and wisdom. You might assume that that was because I was so wrapped up in the Senate hearings that I did not get to the keyboard. I wish that were so, but instead, some health issues had me in doctors’ offices where lasers zapped my eyes and other machines found additional problems with this aged body. In what was meant to be reassuring, the doctor said that the new problems were “repairable,” and the repair strategy, which apparently does not require the copious use of duct tape, is under way, but it all took up some of my time.
Even so, I still had many moments when I could have watched the hearings. Mostly I avoided them expecting them to be as predictable as the Perry Mason reruns on ME TV, and I gather the Senate proceedings held few, if any, surprises. In the half hour I did watch, Barrett stated that her constitutional philosophy was not to place her own values into the Constitution or to seek the original intent of those who drafted the Constitution but, as other conservative judges now say, to apply the original public meaning of the document’s words. The Constitution, she said, does not evolve but, apparently, remains frozen in the eighteenth century. To her this is necessary so that judges will be neutral and not constitutionalize their individual values and views. (I have previously discussed this thinking on this blog in “We, the People of the United States,” posted July 26, 2018, and “Originally It Was Not Originalism,” posted August 22, 2018.)
Although I did not hear her use it, her explanation reminded me of Chief Justice John Roberts’s oft-mocked metaphor that judges should be mere umpires keeping their personal predilections at bay. The contention is that judging can and should be mechanistic. Moreover, rulings that use the standard of original public meaning are desirable because such meaning can be objectively determined
My mind went whirring into the future. Twenty years from now our president is Phillip K. Dick III, a sports fan. He notes in 2040 that tennis matches have long abandoned human officials for line calls using machines instead. Baseball now registers ball and strikes without a human umpire, and footballs have chips implanted so that forward progress at the end of each play can be automatically recorded without the rather slapdash procedures of line or side judges in days of yore. Referees and umpires have moved beyond human judgments, and Dick remembers John Roberts’s words that Supreme Court judges should be like umpires. (Roberts, a mere eighty-five, is entering his thirty-fifth year of Court service.) Therefore, when Stephen Breyer dies at the age of 102 after forty-six years of service as an Associate Justice, Dick nominates a computer — which has had the Constitution, all court decisions, all dictionaries, all necessary history, and anything else that could be relevant to court decisions placed in its memory and which has been programmed to make decisions using these materials — to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. President Dick states that this will eliminate the dangerous human element from constitutional interpretation. Arnold, this device’s name, is ready to take the “seat,” but a cry goes up that Dick cannot do this. The Constitution does not allow the president to appoint non-humans to the highest court. (My imagination cannot discern the source of the cries, but presumably they don’t come from the conservative wing of the Supreme Court, consisting of Clarence Thomas at the age of 92, Samuel Alito at 90, Brett Kavanaugh at 75, Neil Gorsuch at 73, and Amy Coney Barrett at a spry 68, who all claim that they mechanically interpret the fundamental laws without invasion of human emotions.) References to Caligula are made, but a horse is a horse, of course, and Incitatus was never actually made a consul but merely a priest. This is the United States Supreme Court, Dick says, and is different. Human judgement should be removed from judging as the conservatives maintain. Justice Arnold could make decisions without emotions and biases and, therefore, is better suited for the Court than any mere human.
The humans pull out their vest-pocket-sized Constitutions and flip pages to find the controlling text: The president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . Judges of the supreme Court. . . .” (We seldom notice that the Constitution does not give the president the power to appoint Supreme Court judges. The president nominates and with the Senate appoints them. The president and the Senate jointly appoint the Supreme Court.)
All sorts of linguistic tools have emerged that can be used to show how words were used in the constitutional era, but I have only bothered to look at Noah Webster’s dictionary, the compilation of which started much earlier but was first published in 1828. It says that a “judge” is a “civil officer who is invested to hear and determine” civil or criminal causes. Webster defines an “officer” as a “person commissioned or authorized to perform any public duty.” There we have it. A person. With the original public meaning, a judge in the constitutional sense is a person, and Arnold is out. (Of course, much modern constitutional law depends on the legal fiction that a corporation is a person, but that is a story for another day.)
But now the original public meaningers look a little further. Webster states that a judge is a civil officer who decides causes “according to his commission.” His. Does this word include both men and women? Not according to Webster, who defines “his” as the “possessive of he,” not “he or she.” By this analysis, a judge within the meaning of the constitution is not only a person, but a male person with a commission. People now realize that the original public meaning of “judge” in the Constitution means a man. A third of the Supreme Court must go.
Of course, the framing generation could not have meant a non-human as a Supreme Court judge. Cyborgs were not on their radar (and, of course, radar was not on their radar in 1789.) But neither was a female judge. That generation did not consciously reject women as judges; the possibility, as with non-humans, never occurred to them. Lawyers were men, and so were judges. (Some Framers may have thought of that woman lawyer, Portia, but surely they knew that in The Merchant of Venice the lying Portia came disguised as a man, Balthazar, claiming, without basis, to be a “doctor of law.”)
The original public meaning of judge in the Constitution meant a man. Shouldn’t the conservatives on the Supreme Court today read the word as it was meant in 1789?