Originalism? Living Constitutionalism? Who Cares?

Conservatives are ecstatic to have Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, but have you considered what makes a judge “conservative”? Is it the results they reach or the methods they use to make a decision? Conservative judges promise that they are wedded to a process of constitutional and statutory interpretation and follow that process to the outcome no matter what that outcome is. They maintain that they would never, ever, start from wanting a certain result and work backwards from it seeking reasons for that favored result. No, no. They merely use neutral legal interpretive tools in a consistent manner to reach their decisions about the constitution and the laws. They apply originalism, original public meaning, textualism or some other text-based method to tell us what the constitution and laws allow or forbid. (I have written about methods of legal interpretation several times including on August 22, 2018, Originally it was not Originalism – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog), and on March 24, 2017 Originalism to Textualism – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog).)

          I suspect that most of us, however, don’t give a hoot about the analytic methods used by the Court. Few of us could explain the methodologies. We are concerned with the results. I thought of this a few years ago when the Supreme Court held that firing a gay or transgender employee violated a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination “because of . . . sex.” The opinion was written by Neil Gorsuch, a conservative favorite. Gorsuch’s analysis relied on what is called textualism, a method championed by Antonin Scalia and other conservative jurists. I am simplifying somewhat, but the method basically says that the statutory words should be applied as written. So, Gorsuch reasoned that if a man is fired for having sex with a man when a woman would not be dismissed for having sex with a man, then the firing is discrimination based on sex. If a woman were fired from a job when a man would not be, it is sexual discrimination. Thus, if a man is fired from a job when a woman would not, that is also sexual discrimination. Gorsuch reasoned that the dismissal of a man because he has sex with another man when a woman would not lose her job for having sex with a man violated the statute.

          A conservative outcry ensued. Some conservatives discussed Gorsuch’s methodology and concluded that he had misapplied textualism, but many others merely decried the outcome without discussing the majority’s analytical method. They felt that a result that furthered the so-called “homosexual agenda” had to be wrong no matter how the decision was reached. They cared about the outcome, not the methodology. But I think that liberals were similar. They cheered the outcome but did not care about the method used to reach it.

          I thought of this again when the recent Supreme Court term ended. The Court rendered two decisions on its last day. Almost immediately I received an email from a right-wing group praising one of the decisions: “Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision in Americans for Prosperity v. Bonta, a donor disclosure case with direct implications for religious liberty. In its 6-3 ruling, the Court held that a California law requiring the disclosure of donor names is unconstitutional.” The notice from this religious group continued, “Forcing charities to hand over and make their donor information public is unconstitutional—and it’s also very dangerous. Coupled with the toxic ‘cancel culture’ that’s all around us, government having at its fingertips a compiled list of religious people and/or those who support faith-based groups is a recipe for disaster. The ability to associate with others of like mind is indispensable to freedom. We’re very pleased that the Court recognized the disclosure of names and addresses of citizens simply for donating to a cause is chilling to the freedom of association—including the freedom to associate with, join and donate to the faith-based organizations that are near and dear to us.” (This group was clearly wrong when it thanked me “for generously supporting” it and labeled me a “courageous” supporter. I am on their email list only because I requested a free copy of the Constitution from them, which they generously supplied.)

          The point here is not to discuss whether the Supreme Court decision was correct but rather to emphasize that these words of praise are for the outcome of the case, not for the methodology that led to the result. There was no mention of the conservative buzzwords of originalism, original public meaning, or textualism.

          On the same day, the Supreme Court also decided that changes to Arizona voting laws that made it more difficult for some voters to cast a ballot did not violate the Voting Rights Act even though the Arizona measures had a disproportionate effect on minorities. I have read some good commentaries contending that the conservative majority was not properly reading the text of the statute, but was, in effect, rewriting the law which forbids all changes in voting law with a disparate impact on minorities, while the Court decided that the disparate effects were so small that under the Voting Rights Acts they did not matter  Others, however, without addressing the Court’s methodology, simply placed a Jim Crow label on the decision.

          I felt something similar when I watched a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg a few years ago. The movie presented her inspiring life story and claimed that as a lawyer and judge, she helped move the law in directions that many approve of. But the film did not begin to explain her analytic methods or how her methodology may have been the appropriate way to examine constitutional questions. She was a heroine to many not because of her methodology but because of the results that she reached.

          In short, many on both the right and the left have little interest in the analytic methods the Supreme Court uses. They are concerned only with the outcomes.

Stitching a New Nine this Time

President Biden has put together a commission to examine the size of the Supreme Court. A bill was introduced in Congress to expand the Supreme Court from nine to thirteen justices. In response, a Republican congressman said the Democrats’ plan is to do as much harm to “our democracy” as possible. I wondered about his definition of democracy for, while the Supreme Court is an important American institution, it is one of our least democratic features.

The Supreme Court, of course, is not an elected body; the Justices are neither voted in nor answerable to “the people.” Since Justices may sit for thirty or more years, they make decisions for decades after the officials who appointed and confirmed them have left office. This can also be long after many  Americans were even eligible to vote for the president and senators who appointed and confirmed them. The Supreme Court is not a democratic body. Indeed, in finding validly enacted laws unconstitutional, it is often acting anti-democratically.

Furthermore, many do not see the Supreme Court as a neutral, thoughtful legal body, but a political one. Such a notion finds traction any time a presidential candidate pledges to appoint Justices not just for their legal acumen or wisdom but also for their perceived views. We know that the backgrounds of possible Supreme Court nominees are analyzed to foretell their ruling on important issues.

If the Court was to be expanded, Biden would be expected by many to nominate people who would rule in a “liberal” fashion, which means that the Republicans will oppose any expansion of the Supreme Court. Unless changes are made to the anti-democratic filibuster rules, a larger Supreme Court is unlikely. Even so, that should not end considerations for reforming the process even if a larger Court resulted. The Supreme Court is an important institution but not a perfect one, and perhaps it can be made even better. What is clear, however, is that a change in its size and the timing of who will be on the Court will not destroy or harm democracy.

The Constitution does not define the number of Supreme Court Justices. It merely says: “The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Although the Constitution never expressly gives it the authority, Congress sets the size, which has varied from its original six until after the Civil War when it was set at nine, where it has stayed since. That number has seemed sacrosanct since FDR’s failed attempt to expand the Court in 1937.

The Court had found many pieces of New Deal legislation unconstitutional. As Jeff Shesol reports in Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court (2010), the Supreme Court between 1933 and 1936 overturned congressional acts at ten times the historic rate often using long neglected doctrines and breathing new life into obscure clauses of the Constitution to do so. Roosevelt then sought an expansion of the Court. Although Roosevelt gave varying nonpolitical reasons for his plan (What a shock! A politician being disingenuous!), the assumption was that he wanted more Justices so that he could appoint sympathetic people, who would uphold legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president. Or as one might put it, accept democratically enacted laws.

Roosevelt’s proposal was soundly defeated after much rhetoric about his threat to our constitutional government. While FDR’s plan failed by a resounding vote, ultimately he was the winner, and the Supreme Court and conservatives the losers. Here’s why. Soon after the proposal to enlarge the Court was presented, the Court began to uphold New Deal legislation with logic that seemed inconsistent with its previous holdings. To many the Court seemed to be bending to political winds, and the perception of it as a partisan institution increased. The proposal to enlarge the Supreme Court did not put Roosevelt in a good light. However, it also put the Court in a­ bad a light when its questionable constitutional interpretations became recognized as being the overreach of biased judges reacting to legislation they did not favor.

Any suggestion since then to expand the Court has met with outcries that our constitutional way of life will be overthrown. Adding Justices only seems to be a partisan power play and not something that could improve justice, the Court, or the perception of the Court. Something like this passage from an email I have just received from a conservative institution will be repeated many times:

Political elites on the radical Left have officially taken the first step in their plot to overthrow the U.S. Supreme Court. With the Biden Administration’s recent announcement of their new Supreme Court “reform” commission, there’s no mistaking it any longer: the extreme Left set its sights on permanently turning our independent judiciary into a tool of raw political power. And now taking it even further, Democrats have filed a bill to add 4 seats to the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s call it what it is: a coup.

Liberals, on the other hand, have seen the Republican denial of the Merrick Garland nomination and the subsequent approval of Amy Coney Barrett as exercises of raw political power. These moves are seen not as a coup, but as a means of transforming the judiciary into a more partisan institution. A Democratic congressional candidate in the last election, when asked about court packing, said what many others think:

Sure, let’s talk about packing the court. Let’s talk about how Republicans have won the popular vote only 1 of last 7 Presidential elections but have nominated 14 of last 19 SCOTUS picks. Let’s talk about how Mitch McConnell denied President Obama’s appointments of 110 Federal judges, and a SCOTUS appointment. Those 110 appointments were then appointed by President Trump with conservative judges, and the SCOTUS pick denied to Obama was given to Trump. And now, going back on their own rule to not appoint SCOTUS justices in an election year, the GOP wants to appoint a justice in an election year. You can’t accuse Democrats of a hypothetical event that never happened while ignoring the actual court packing done by Republicans.

It seems inevitable that those holding this latter view want to use present Democratic political power to balance the partisan Republican actions. Our country is harmed the more that Supreme Court rulings are seen not as neutral constitutional and statutory rulings but as merely the imposition of personal, political, and increasingly religious views of the judges and those who placed them on the bench. An expanded Court might bring us a more balanced Court now, but ultimately, just as the Republicans have damaged the Supreme Court by their actions, the Democrats may do the same in the name of balance. The functioning of our constitutional government is harmed if we all believe as Roy Cohn did when he said, “I don’t want to know what the law is, I want to know who the judge is.” The Republican actions foster that feeling, and actions to counterbalance them by expanding the Court can do the same.

We can’t remove politics from Supreme Court decisions. On some level, all government decisions are political, and the Court is not immune. Writing about a famous case, legal scholar Fred Rodell said, “Both the plaudits and the deference, like the decision itself, and like every significant Supreme Court decision since, were and are rooted in politics, not in law. This only the ignorant would deny and only the naïve deplore.” This may be so, but that does not mean that we should just throw up our hands and accept an overly partisan Court. Instead, in examining proposals for reforming the Supreme Court, we should be seeking ways to make it look, and perhaps be, less politically partisan and more politically neutral.

Many reforms have been proposed including adding Justices now, which, of course, will be seen as and would be a partisan move even if it is warranted by Republican actions. Expansion would apparently be a one-shot deal, but of course, Republicans would be urged to do something comparable when they have the opportunity.

Other proposals, however, offer institutional changes in the timing of Supreme Court nominations that, even though they would lead to a larger body, could make the Court appear, and perhaps be, less partisan. I have not studied them all, but one has intrigued me. But now my embarrassment. I know that I read this proposal, or one much like it, somewhere. It was online, and I did not save it. I have looked for it, but so far have not found it again. I apologize for not giving proper credit, which I hope to correct.

The core of this unique proposal is that each president gets to appoint a Supreme Court Justice every two years, say on the July 1 after the presidential term begins. Presidents would make another appointment every two years thereafter. Of course, since Justices can sit on the Supreme Court until death or resignation, the Court could have an increasing number of judges, which could become unwieldy. Instead, in this scenario nine Justices would be picked at random from all the Supreme Court judges to decide a case. Many courts already operate this way. Intermediate appellate courts, such as the federal Courts of Appeals, have panels of three judges deciding a case but have more than that number sitting on that court. From the panoply of judges, the requisite number are selected to resolve a case. For example, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has thirteen fully active judges, but normally only three decide a case. The court can, therefore, take on more cases and decide them more quickly. Similarly, a Supreme Court that had more than nine judges could consider more cases than it does now. If, for example, the Supreme Court had fourteen justices and nine decided each case, then the Court should be able to accept for review fifty percent more cases than it does now. Fewer Court of Appeals decisions, which are sometimes inconsistent from circuit to circuit, would stand as the final result in a litigation. This could give more certainty, uniformity, and finality to the law.

This would also dampen lawyerly gamesmanship. Deadlines are in place to seek Supreme Court review. If they are not met, the lower court decision becomes final. If a party has been ordered to pay $1million or to serve a twenty-year sentence, the money must be paid or the imprisonment served if the petition for Supreme Court review is not timely filed. The party cannot wait for a change in Court Justices hoping that they will receive a more favorable chance in front of a newly-constituted Supreme Court.

Unlike individuals, some institutions are able to wait for Supreme Court review until the time seems propitious. For example, assume the government has lost a tax case concerning some new scheme to avoid taxes. Government attorneys may believe that if they get Supreme Court review, they will lose the case before an existing Supreme Court thereby allowing a precedent being set that allows the scheme to be used by other taxpayers indefinitely. Instead, the government may decide not to seek review in hopes that the makeup of a future Court may be more amenable to its contentions. It may be better for the government to let that individual taxpayer keep the contested moneys to avoid a bad precedent and instead seek review with some other future taxpayer when the Court makeup is different. The government can take the longer view than an individual litigant.

Other institutional groups also try to time Supreme Court review. These institutions represent a cause more than an individual client. Prime examples are the NAACP or the ACLU, but they have been joined by a host of conservative organizations. These advocacy groups often seek review only on issues when they assess the Supreme Court lineup as favorable to their position. We can expect to see that gamesmanship being played repeatedly in the coming years. With Barrett’s ascension to the Court, conservative legal organization see a solid majority favoring certain kinds of religious claims, Second Amendment expansion, and claims limiting or perhaps eliminating the right to abortion, and they will seek to get Supreme Court review of cases containing such issues.

Such gamesmanship only furthers the notion that it is not truly the Constitution or the law that determines an issue, but the personal predilections of the Justices. The intrinsic merits of a legal argument may stay the same, but the likelihood of an outcome can vary depending on the timing of Supreme Court review.

That lawyerly calculus would change, however, if the nine Justices who heard a case were drawn from a larger pool, and the attorneys seeking review did not know who those nine would be. The addition of a single Justice to the Court would not be the momentous event it now often is. I don’t know for certain what result this would have on Supreme Court decisions and the perceptions of those decisions, but perhaps there would be more focus on the issues and less on the judges.

I also saw another option if we had a new Justice every two years, and we had a Supreme Court larger than nine. It is the one I find most interesting.

If every two years the president could nominate a new person to the Supreme Court Justice, the Court could have more than nine Justices. Instead of having the entire group decide all cases, which could be unwieldy, or instead of drawing nine from all the Justices, there is another intriguing possibility. The nine most recently appointed Justices would regularly render the Supreme Court decisions. The displaced Justices would move to a reserve status. That judge would be available whenever one of the regular nine was unavailable for whatever reason such as illness or a conflict of interest. If one of the regular nine died or resigned, the last regularly sitting justice would become one of the regular nine again until another Justice was appointed at the scheduled time.

An obvious question arises. Would this violate the constitutional provision that federal judges have life tenure? (The Constitution actually says judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.”) I don’t think so. Judges who were appointed more than eighteen years ago and moved to the new reserve status would still hold office. Chief Justice Roberts in his nomination hearing said that he planned to judge like an umpire calling balls and strikes without his personal values affecting his decisions. Let’s stay with the baseball analogy. Nine players take the field, but the other players on the roster are available to come into the game if needed. The players on the field are in the major leagues, but those in the bullpen or in the dugout (I wanted to say “on the bench.” Ha. Ha.) are major leaguers and are on the team, too. With this proposal, the nine Judges actively sitting on the bench (Oxymoron? Actively sitting?) are Supreme Court Justices, but those back in chambers waiting to be called upon would also be Supreme Court Justices, and they can stay in that office during good behavior.

With this proposal, judges would regularly decide cases for eighteen years. That eighteen-year period has advantages. Among other things, it would move the Court to the practice that it has had for most of its history. Before 1959, the average length of tenure on the Supreme Court was thirteen or fourteen years. Since 1959, it has been about twenty-five years. Current Justices have served longer. Clarence Thomas has been serving for twenty-nine years and Stephen Breyer for twenty-six. Chief Justice Roberts and Samuel Alito have been on the Court for fifteen years while the other Justices have been sitting for shorter periods.

That eighteen-year period could also lead to an expanded pool of people to be considered for a nomination. Wanting to leave as long a legacy on the Supreme Court as possible, presidents today are not likely to appoint someone who is sixty or older. God forbid, that person might be on the Court for a mere twenty years! Find someone who is younger and expect a tenure of thirty or more years. Thus, Amy Coney Barrett, the last person appointed to the Supreme Court, went on the bench when she was forty-eight and her two immediate predecessors on the Court, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, were fifty-three and forty-nine, respectively. Fifty-five is the oldest age at which any of the present Supreme Court Justices was appointed, and Clarence Thomas was only forty-three. Knowing, however, that the most active period of judging will be “only” eighteen years, a president can consider a wider range of age and experience for a nominee.

Giving every president an appointment every two years may also reduce the partisanship of the Supreme Court and certainly should reduce the perception of partisanship. Currently it is mere chance that determines how many, if any, nominations the chief executive will have. Some presidents have a greater opportunity to pack the court with ideological bedfellows than others. With this reform all presidents would be treated equally. The appointments might be just as partisan as now, but the partisanship is more likely to be balanced and in sync with “the people” as we elect presidents.

The partisan games we have just witnessed during which the Senate denied a consideration of Merrick Garland but forced through the confirmation of Barrett would end. Such maneuvers that strengthen the notion that the Court is not a neutral body might end. Similarly, the present situation calling for the resignation of Justice Breyer so that “our side” can appoint a younger person, which also tends to treat the Court as just another partisan body, should disappear.

This reform should not put be into place immediately. Of course, Republicans would oppose it if it gave Biden two appointments in the next four years. Instead, it should start after the next presidential election with the newly-elected president getting his/her first appointment on July 1, 2025, and one every two years thereafter. Perhaps this might even lead to a more information-driven presidential campaign with candidates, knowing they will have two and only two nominations, revealing to the electorate who those candidates might be.

I am sure there are downsides to this proposal, but would it really be bad to treat all presidents equally? And why is it bad if unelected Justices decided cases for “only” eighteen years when most Justices before 1960 did not serve that long?

Stitching a New Nine this Time (concluded)

If every two years the president could nominate a new person to the Supreme Court Justice, the Court could have more than nine Justices. Instead of having the entire group decide all cases, which could be unwieldy, or instead of drawing nine from all the Justices, there is another intriguing possibility. The nine most recently appointed Justices would regularly render the Supreme Court decisions. The displaced Justices would move to a reserve status. That judge would be available whenever one of the regular nine was unavailable for whatever reason such as illness or a conflict of interest. If one of the regular nine died or resigned, the last regularly sitting justice would become one of the regular nine again until another Justice was appointed at the scheduled time.

An obvious question arises. Would this violate the constitutional provision that federal judges have life tenure? (The Constitution actually says judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.”) I don’t think so. Judges who were appointed more than eighteen years ago and moved to the new reserve status would still hold office. Chief Justice Roberts in his nomination hearing said that he planned to judge like an umpire calling balls and strikes without his personal values affecting his decisions. Let’s stay with the baseball analogy. Nine players take the field, but the other players on the roster are available to come into the game if needed. The players on the field are in the major leagues, but those in the bullpen or in the dugout (I wanted to say “on the bench.” Ha. Ha.) are major leaguers and are on the team, too. With this proposal, the nine Judges actively sitting on the bench (Oxymoron? Actively sitting?) are Supreme Court Justices, but those back in chambers waiting to be called upon would also be Supreme Court Justices, and they can stay in that office during good behavior.

With this proposal, judges would regularly decide cases for eighteen years. That eighteen-year period has advantages. Among other things, it would move the Court to the practice that it has had for most of its history. Before 1959, the average length of tenure on the Supreme Court was thirteen or fourteen years. Since 1959, it has been about twenty-five years. Current Justices have served longer. Clarence Thomas has been serving for twenty-nine years and Stephen Breyer for twenty-six. Chief Justice Roberts and Samuel Alito have been on the Court for fifteen years while the other Justices have been sitting for shorter periods.

That eighteen-year period could also lead to an expanded pool of people to be considered for a nomination. Wanting to leave as long a legacy on the Supreme Court as possible, presidents today are not likely to appoint someone who is sixty or older. God forbid, that person might be on the Court for a mere twenty years! Find someone who is younger and expect a tenure of thirty or more years. Thus, Amy Coney Barrett, the last person appointed to the Supreme Court, went on the bench when she was forty-eight and her two immediate predecessors on the Court, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, were fifty-three and forty-nine, respectively. Fifty-five is the oldest age at which any of the present Supreme Court Justices was appointed, and Clarence Thomas was only forty-three. Knowing, however, that the most active period of judging will be “only” eighteen years, a president can consider a wider range of age and experience for a nominee.

Giving every president an appointment every two years may also reduce the partisanship of the Supreme Court and certainly should reduce the perception of partisanship. Currently it is mere chance that determines how many, if any, nominations the chief executive will have. Some presidents have a greater opportunity to pack the court with ideological bedfellows than others. With this reform all presidents would be treated equally. The appointments might be just as partisan as now, but the partisanship is more likely to be balanced and in sync with “the people” as we elect presidents.

The partisan games we have just witnessed during which the Senate denied a consideration of Merrick Garland but forced through the confirmation of Barrett would end. Such maneuvers that strengthen the notion that the Court is not a neutral body might end. Similarly, the present situation calling for the resignation of Justice Breyer so that “our side” can appoint a younger person, which also tends to treat the Court as just another partisan body, should disappear.

This reform should not put be into place immediately. Of course, Republicans would oppose it if it gave Biden two appointments in the next four years. Instead, it should start after the next presidential election with the newly-elected president getting his/her first appointment on July 1, 2025, and one every two years thereafter. Perhaps this might even lead to a more information-driven presidential campaign with candidates, knowing they will have two and only two nominations, revealing to the electorate who those candidates might be.

I am sure there are downsides to this proposal, but would it really be bad to treat all presidents equally? And why is it bad if unelected Justices decided cases for “only” eighteen years when most Justices before 1960 did not serve that long?

(This essay will be posted in order on Monday May 3)

Snippets

I was waiting for an angiogram in a room divided into cubicles by curtains. I could hear the guy next to me chattering, not to me, but to the nurse, who was taking his history. When the guy learned that the nurse was a Filipino, he became more voluble because his sister-in-law was a nurse born in the Philippines. I and anyone else in the room learned how his sister-in-law had worked in New York City at Bellevue Hospital but that she now worked at Stony Brook Hospital on Long Island. She had married into an Italian-American family, and she loved cooking Italian food. He exclaimed proudly, “You wouldn’t believe the spread she puts out on New Year’s Eve. We all go to her house. The food is so beautiful, and she makes so many dishes.” When he went off for his procedure, I was left in relative silence for an hour or more before I was wheeled off, but my neighbor-patient’s comments continued to ring in my ear. They made me feel better about America.

          New York City, along with several other jurisdictions, was named an “anarchistic jurisdiction” by the Trump administration in an effort to withhold federal funds. But I also hear from conservatives that NYC has confiscatory taxes to support its oppressively big government.  Anarchy, big government . . . if words have meanings, both terms can’t apply. Pick one epithet, not both.

          The controversy over the elevation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court brought about hopes and concerns about the future of Roe v. Wade as well as the future of same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights. The future of the Affordable Care Act also hangs in the balance. This has given me pause. I know that the Supreme Court will be considering a case about the ACA, but even though I have some understanding of constitutional law, I do not know the reasons that suggest that Obamacare is unconstitutional? Do you? I don’t believe many people do, but I know that many desire its end. Why? Nearly all the complaints lodged against the healthcare law are not true. (You can check them out! Go online.) I assume that nearly all of the Republican and conservative elites know that the attacks on the ACA are canards, but they still act as if the foundations of society are crumbling because of the law. Why the adamant opposition? A recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office may reveal why the Republican establishment wants the end of the Affordable Care Act. Tax increases designed to fund Obamacare are concentrated on the top one percent, but its benefits are spread widely among the bottom 40% of income earners. Thus, the ACA produced an income increase of 3.6% in the bottom income quintile and a 3.2% income increase in next higher income quintile. The middle quintile saw a 0.5% income increase with minor income increases up the income scale until we get to the top 1% where there was an income drop of 1.2%. Perhaps, such income redistribution above all else, explains why Paul Ryan, Trump, Mitch McConnell, and others wish to rid our country of that pernicious Affordable Care Act.

Real Americans I know have taken their six-year-old trick-or-treating. Real Americans I know have at least tried to carve a Jack-O-Lantern with their kids. And Donald J. Trump?

Let’s Get Women Off the Supreme Court

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?

To Save Your Soul

John F. Kennedy’s watershed speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960 still reverberates. Kennedy, of course, was a Catholic, and a group of Protestant ministers that election year had promised to “oppose with all powers at our command, the election of a Catholic to the Presidency of the United States.” Norman Vincent Peale, one of the most revered clergymen in the country, headed another religious group that stated that the Catholic Church was a “political as well as a religious organization” that had frequently repudiated the sacred principle “that every man shall be free to follow the dictates of his conscience in religious matters.” Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State stated that it could not avoid the “fact that one church in the U.S., the largest church operating on American soil, officially supports a world-wide policy of partial union of church and state where it has the power to enforce such a policy.”

 In his masterful Houston speech, Kennedy responded:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all. . . .

Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

Kennedy’s speech defused his “Catholic issue,” helped him win the election, and has had a lasting effect. Mainstream figures no longer question a Catholic’s fitness for the presidency. I don’t remember John Kerry’s religion being raised in a negative way at all when he ran for President, and although Trump may have suggested that Joe Biden is somehow bad for the religious, voters don’t seem to be for or against the former Vice President because he is a Catholic. Indeed, we have gone further. Polite political society tends to eschew any questions about how an office seeker’s religious beliefs might affect his governmental performance. (For example, there was little discussion of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism.) Even if, however, this is generally a good thing, there are times that we should drop this political correctness.

Perhaps the most significant development from Kennedy’s speech has been on the Supreme Court. We have not elected another Catholic as President, but the highest court, which for generations had but one Roman Catholic, now has six Catholics out of the eight justices. The conservative bloc of five are all Catholic men: John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, also a Catholic, if confirmed, is expected to join those five men on the conservative wing of the Court. (On the liberal side, Sonia Sotomayor is also Catholic.) This Catholic domination of our highest court draws only a few comments as has the waning of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants on the judiciary, but, of course, it was once much different. Aristide R. Zolberg in A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (2008) reports that of the federal judges appointed by Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, 170 were Protestant, 8 Catholic, and 8 Jewish. (Change came with FDR. Over a quarter of his judicial appointments were Catholic.)

 JFK, who attended public schools, maintained that his religious views were irrelevant in his quest for the White House. In that 1960 Houston speech, he stated, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens to be Catholic.” Even so, Protestant evangelicals opposed Kennedy. His speech may have diffused some anti-Catholic animus, but the evangelicals sixty years ago were still more than a little suspicious of a Catholic president.

The world is different today. Evangelicals today enthusiastically support Amy Coney Barrett. Their support is not in spite of her Catholicism but because of it. They assume that her religious background foretells constitutional and statutory interpretations that evangelicals and other conservatives want. Ads supporting Barrett’s nomination highlight that she is “grounded in faith” and is a “proud Christian.” What is widely reported to be her deep devotion to her religion is part of the reason she was nominated and is given as a reason she should be confirmed.

I expect, however, that she will maintain that her decisions will only be what the law and Constitution require and not because of her religion. She will in effect make a JFK-like pledge to be a secular justice in spite of what those ads and her supporters hint at. Conservatives will fulminate at any mention of religion in the confirmation hearing and suggest that questions that touch on her Catholicism would be an attack on religion that are un-American in our tolerant country. But there are questions that should be asked, and they are not an attack on religion. If, for example, a judicial candidate held a million dollars of stock in IBM, a Senator should be concerned about whether these holdings might affect the candidate’s potential decisions if IBM was a litigant before the court. Such Senatorial questions would not be an attack on the stock holding but a question about a potential conflict of interest.

Money, which can cause conflicts for judges, is a relatively trivial matter compared to concerns for devout Christians such as Barrett about immortal souls and eternal damnation. I am not a Catholic theologian, but my understanding is that the Catholic church maintains that abortion is a mortal sin, brings automatic excommunication, and, if unrepented, results in eternal damnation upon the sinner. In our country of the free exercise of religion, Barrett is entitled to those beliefs and no government official should criticize her for them. On the other hand, it is fair to ask whether those religious views would affect her secular job of being a Supreme Court Justice. Of course, state restrictions on abortions and even whether Roe v. Wade should stand may come to the court. Would Barrett be enabling others to commit a mortal sin if she believed that a pro-choice outcome was the correct legal decision? Would she herself be committing a sin by making a legal decision that goes against Church doctrine? Would she believe that she is putting her soul in jeopardy? I don’t know if the Church has ever denied sacraments to a judge because of judicial rulings, but at least some powerful Church officials have said that legislators who support pro-choice positions should be denied mass, an essential sacrament for a Roman Catholic. (Some church officials have aimed more widely than just at legislators. Last week a news story from La Crosse, Wisconsin, reported, “At St. James the Less, where the faithful eschewed masks, the Rev. James Altman denounced the Democrats. ‘You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat, period,’ he said in a YouTube Video.”)

          Such questions are not attacking her religious beliefs but inquiring about impartiality. Can you be impartial in your judicial rulings if by your beliefs you are putting the immortal souls of others, and perhaps your own, in jeopardy? (Of course, such questions would be appropriate about issues other than Roe v. Wade and might also be asked about artificial contraception and LBGTQ rights.) And the real issue is not just impartiality, but the appearance of impartiality. A federal statute states, “Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The judge must not just convince herself that she is impartial, she must appear to be impartial to others.

          Barrett co-authored a law review article in 1998 that is relevant for her confirmation. She considered that our Constitution permits capital punishment but that the Catholic church finds the death penalty immoral, placing Catholic judges in a moral and legal bind. The abstract to the article states that “litigants and the general public are entitled to impartial justice, which may be something a judge who is heedful of ecclesiastical pronouncements cannot dispense. .  . . While mere identification of a judge as Catholic is not sufficient reason for recusal under federal law, the authors suggest that the moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment in such cases as sentencing, enforcing jury recommendations, and affirming are in fact reasons for not participating.” The secular law may authorize a death sentence, but Barrett suggests that a Catholic judge cannot impose capital punishment and goes on to maintain that a Catholic judge should recuse herself in the death penalty.

          The law review article was about the death penalty, but it seems to be an illustration of a broader position. If a Catholic judge has to choose between the law and moral strictures as laid down by the Church, the Catholic judge must take the moral road. However, that judge can avoid the dilemma through recusal.  The judge must remove herself from a case that presents such a conflict.

          Barrett, however, might think that there is no dilemma for her when it comes to abortion. She may believe that the Constitution does not protect a woman’s right to choose, a defensible position, and therefore conclude that there is no conflict between the law and her Catholic faith. But the litigants and public are entitled not only to impartial justice but also to the appearance of impartial justice. Just as a judge may sincerely maintain that his decision favoring IBM was impartial, others may think that his stock in IBM at least subconsciously affected the decision. There are reasons to question his impartiality. Barrett may sincerely maintain that she is being impartial in finding no constitutional right protecting abortion, but others will think that her faith affected her judgment at least subconsciously.

          The Senate Judiciary Committee should explore these issues with Amy Coney Barrett. Unless Barrett addresses them in a convincing manner, her intellectual integrity will be suspect, and that is neither good for her nor the Supreme Court.

The dilemma for the Catholic Supreme Court Justice between the law and the Catholic faith on morality does not mean that Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court should be rejected. A judge is different from a president. John F. Kennedy pledged that if his presidential duties conflicted with his religious conscience, he would resign the presidency. A president, however, does not have the ability to avoid issues through a recusal. A Supreme Court Justice, however, can avoid having to make decisions when there is an apparent conflict between her religious and secular duties, as there is for a Catholic judge in death penalty cases.

The Senate should be asking Barrett to pledge that when she believes that a legal decision might put her soul or the souls of others in mortal jeopardy, she will recuse herself. This would not be an attack on religion, but an attempt to secure the impartiality and the appearance of impartiality of our Supreme Court.

I can hear you saying, “But the other judges were not asked to make such a pledge.” And I answer, “They should have been.”