ACB Told Us So

          A week ago, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in a speech urged those who are concerned about the Supreme Court to consider more than a case’s outcome. “It’s not just the result that matters. You can disagree with the result passionately. No judge is deciding a case in order to impose a policy result. They are trying to make their best effort to determine what the law requires.” She instructed her audience to the live-streamed event, “Read the opinion,” and asked, “Does [the decision] read like something that was purely results driven and designed to impose the policy preferences of the majority, or does this read like it actually is an honest effort and persuasive effort, even if one you ultimately don’t agree with, to determine what the Constitution and precedent requires?”

          I am one of those who has sleepless nights and troubled naps worrying about the policy decisions made by Barrett and her colleagues. I am hardly alone. A recent poll found that only one in six Americans thinks that the Court is impartial. How could I be so wrong? How could most of you be so wrong? But I can now rest assured. “No judge is deciding a case in order to impose a policy result.” The truth has been delivered. Each and every judge is unbiased. How do I know? Amy Coney Barrett has told me so. Apparently, assertion equals truth.

          It is not surprising that Barrett is especially sensitive to criticisms that her decisions are partisan. She ascended to the Court through blatant partisan maneuverings of Mitch McConnell, and of course, President Trump appointed her because he and others believed that her decisions in certain areas would be predictable. It was expected that she would favor corporations and businesses; aid to religious schools; free exercise of religion claims that would exempt the “religious” from the legal obligations that the rest of us must observe; the limitation or elimination of abortion, contraception, and sexual rights; and the expansion of gun rights.

          The setting of her speech—the Ronald Reagan Library—may have seemed partisan, but the Library over the years has invited all the justices to keynote events. On the other hand, I did not see a non-white face in the audience. That does not mean there was no diversity. Before Barrett spoke, some notables were introduced and that showed that there were white males in attendance from several different boardrooms. Ah, diversity. (These gentlemen are likely to be happy with a current Court trend. Adam Cohen in Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America (2020) notes a study that the Warren Court found in favor of businesses 28% of the time; the Burger Court 48% of the time; 54% for the Rehnquist Court; and 64% for the Roberts Court. Cohen also reports that Justice Scalia voted for criminal defendants in non-white-collar crimes 7% of the time, but in white collar crimes 82% of the time and that Chief Justice Rehnquist voted for defendants in non-white-collar crimes 8% of the times but in white collar crimes 62% of the time.)

          Barrett insists that it is not just the result that matters. Perhaps she is right, but if so, only barely. For most of us, the outcome is what we care about, not how the decision is reached. See post of April 4, 202: Search Results for “Originalism?” – AJ’s Dad ( But in trying to reassure us that the results come not from the justice’s personal preferences, Justice Barrett said something troubling. She urged reading the opinion and asked if it reads “like something that was purely results driven.” Purely! I should be sanguine if it is only 80% or 23% results driven? She goes on and asks us if a Justice’s opinion reads as if “designed to impose the policy preferences of the majority, or does this read like it actually is an honest effort and persuasive effort, even if one you ultimately don’t agree with, to determine what the Constitution and precedent requires?” If it reads as that honest effort, I should stop my negative thinking.

          Lawyers are results driven. An attorney is supposed to find a compelling legal path to the outcome the client wants. The lawyer is trying to present a persuasive effort that the client’s desired result is what the Constitution, precedent, or statute requires. I would like to think the Supreme Court Justices would at least make adequate attorneys, and it would be shocking if they could not make apparently good arguments to justify their decisions even if they were results driven. (Barrett, however, did not have much of a career as an attorney; it lasted only a couple years.)

          Some people are convinced by mere preaching from on high, but others believe–cliché alert–that actions speak louder than words. Opinions justifying results that fit with the perceived policy choices of the justices are unlikely to convince the majority of us who are skeptical about the neutrality of the justices. If Barrett rules to overturn Roe v. Wade, I among many are likely to think it was a predetermined result that stems from her conservative and religious views no matter what “legal” reasoning she gives for the outcome. What might convince us that precedent and the Constitution drive justices’ votes would be decisions in which justices have gone against the preconceptions we have of them. Interestingly and all too tellingly, Barrett in her speech provided no such evidence of such an event.

          Her word is supposed to be good enough, but what do you think when someone tells you how honest or disinterested they are? A Supreme Court Justice telling me how pure in thought and motive all the justices are brings a similar skeptical reaction. Justices would be better off not making such pronouncements. If they are going to make speeches, perhaps they should just tell anecdotes—I might feel better about the Court if I found out, for example, that two of its members have argued about what has been the best heavy metal band—and not make what is really a policy statement about how divorced the justices are from making policy pronouncements.

          Even so, before condemning a decision as results-oriented, there is merit to her injunction to read the opinion first, advice that would be easier to follow if justices were forbidden from writing their opinions in more than double-digit pages, something, I assure you, will not happen. Nevertheless, reading the opinion is a good idea. So I was surprised when two days—I repeat, two days—after Barrett’s speech, the Supreme Court rendered a five-to-four decision with vigorous dissents. The decision, upon the request of Louisiana, other states, and companies in the gas and oil industry, reinstated a Trump-era rule that limited the ability of states to block projects that could pollute waterways. The decision fit my preconception of how the conservatives would rule on an environmental case, but I was taking Barrett to heart and went to read the opinion before coming to any conclusions. Guess what? There was no opinion. This came out of what is known as the “shadow docket” of the Court. The majority did not give reasons for its ruling. “Read the opinion”?!?

          I don’t know if Amy Coney Barrett has a good sense of humor. But I do know that she can be ironic.

To Recuse or Not to Recuse? Let’s Make the Question Easier

Messages from Ginni Thomas to Trump administration officials indicate she believes that the last election was stolen from the former president. This has brought calls that her husband Clarence Thomas recuse himself from any Supreme Court case that might involve that 2020 election.

I leave the merits of whether his recusal is appropriate to others or for another day. Instead, I have been struck by some of the commentary that says that Justice Thomas should refuse to recuse and refers to the well-known opinion (in certain nerd circles) when Antonin Scalia refused to recuse himself.

In that case, Vice-President Dick Cheney was a named party, and an opposing party moved that Scalia recuse himself because Cheney and Scalia for years had gone on a hunting vacation together. Before launching into the twenty pages defending his non-recusal decision, Scalia pointed out that the motion suggested that Scalia “resolve any doubts in favor of recusal.” Scalia responded: “That might be sound advice if I were sitting on a Court of Appeals. There, my place would be taken by another judge, and the case would proceed normally. On the Supreme Court, however, the consequence is different: The Court proceeds with eight Justices, raising the possibility that, by reason of a tie vote, it will find itself unable to resolve the significant legal issue presented by the case.”

Of course, Scalia was right that a recusal on a lower court is different from one on the Supreme Court. Throughout the country, we generally have three levels of courts. The lowest is often called a trial court where a legal matter originates. The proceedings are presided over by a single judge, but there are other trial judges in the jurisdiction. If a judge steps aside, another trial judge gets the matter, and the legal matter proceeds in the same fashion as if there had been no recusal.

An intermediate appellate court sitting above the trial courts decides cases with panels of judges—three in the federal Courts of Appeals. These appeals courts, however, retain more than three judges. The panel to decide a case is drawn from the greater number. For example, the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals has thirteen fully active judges, but normally only three decide a case. As Scalia indicated, if a judge assigned to a case is recused, then another appellate court judge steps in and the same sized panel still decides the case.

The Supreme Court is different. Nine justices decide a case and the Supreme Court has only nine justices. If a justice steps aside, the matter will be decided by the remaining justices, or if the justices split evenly, no decision is rendered. (A tie vote means the intermediate appellate court decision stands.) Scalia used the possibility of a four-four split as a justification to stay on the case, and it is now also cited as a reason why Clarence Thomas should not recuse himself.

While lower court judges may be expected to err on the side of recusal and step off a case when there is a reasonable chance that there is a conflict of interest or the perception of a conflict, Scalia’s approach was that a Supreme Court Justice should err on the side of non-recusal. More unfairness may result, and an increased perception of unfairness seems inevitable. The unavailability of a justice to replace a recused justice, however, is remediable, and reforms should be considered.

The Constitution neither defines the number of Supreme Court Justices nor does it define how many Justices should decide a case. 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 after FDR’s failed attempt to expand the Court in 1937.

Nine remains sacred because proposals to change the size seem partisan. Recent suggestions of enlarging the Court came because that body is firmly conservative and because Republican partisan activities insured a firm majority of rightist Justices. However, there are proposals that would lead to more than nine Justices that could make the Court appear, and perhaps be, less partisan. The reforms could lead to better Justices and make the nomination and approval process less partisan.

The core of the 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 if all of them decided each case. Instead, nine Justices would be picked at random from all the Supreme Court judges to hear a matter.

There are obvious advantages to this scheme. First, of course, there would be replacements for recused justices, and there would be no possibility of an equal split among the justices. The decision to recuse can then concentrate solely on conflicts of interests.

Another advantage is that the enlarged Court could take on 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 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 result in a litigation. This would give more certainty, uniformity, and finality to the law than we have now.

Drawing nine from a broader roster of justices also would have the advantage of dampening lawyerly gamesmanship. Attorneys now try to predict how each of the nine justices might decide a particular issue and seek review only when they assess the Supreme Court lineup as favorable to their position. That gamesmanship was evident with Amy Coney Barrett’s ascension to the Court. Conservative legal organizations now see a solid Supreme Court majority favoring certain kinds of religious claims, Second Amendment expansion, and the limitation or elimination of the right to abortion and are seeking to get Supreme Court review of cases containing such issues before a Court they see as especially favorable to their viewpoints.

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 public focus on the issues and less on the judges. That would be a good thing.

(concluded April 8)

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 (, and on March 24, 2017 Originalism to Textualism – AJ’s Dad (

          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.

Pence and the Demise of Conservative Jurisprudence

          In a recent interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, vice present Michael Pence labeled John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, a “disappointment to conservatives.” Pence cited some of Roberts recent decisions about LGBT workplace discrimination, immigration, abortion, and religious demands for favored treatments. Pence, however, was not making jurisprudential or constitutional comments in criticizing the Chief Justice. Pence was trying to score political points. He wants to make Roberts into a campaign issue. Pence insisted that the Chief Justice’s decisions “are a reminder of just how important this election is for the future of the Supreme Court.” He is concerned that the judicial appointments are not the campaign issue that they were four years ago. “We remember the issue back in 2016, which I believe loomed large in voters’ decisions between Hillary Clinton and the man who would become president of the United States,” he said. “And some people thought that it wouldn’t be as big an issue these days. But I think that’s all changed.”

          Pence apparently does not believe that Chief Justice Roberts is sufficiently conservative, that the Court needs a greater number of conservative justices, and that the reelection of Trump is necessary for those appointments. The comments, however, left open an important issue: How does Pence, or conservatives generally, or the religious people Pence was trying to reach on the Christian Broadcast Network define a conservative or “good” Supreme Court Justice? In discussing recent cases, Pence indicates that his touchstone is the outcome that a justice reaches. He expects a “conservative” justice to rule against abortion, Obamacare, and immigration, and in favor of religious claims. Other conservatives might expect conservative justices to side with business, with law enforcement, with gun owners, against regulations, against campaign finance restrictions, and against voting rights.

          However, assessing a justice against what are thought to be desirable conservative outcomes is measuring the justice against political principles, not legal ones. Conservatives used to decry liberal justices as unprincipled, claiming that the judges did not follow neutral legal principles and were only interested in reaching results justices personally desired. Judges, however, are not supposed to act as politicians or even lawyers. As an attorney, when I represented a client on appeal, I started with the desired result, which was usually seeking to overturn a criminal conviction. I then sought out precedents, arguments, and reasonings that I hoped would lead to the desired result. I was not acting neutrally. When judges do something similar and seek out justifications for a result they want, the judge is not acting as a judge but as a political partisan. A judge is supposed to use neutral principles and follow them to wherever that might lead, even if that is not the result desired by political instincts.

          Not all nonpartisan judges, however, agree on what neutral principles should be applied, and it was the selection of the judicial methodology that supposedly defined conservative jurists, notably Antonin Scalia. They believed in “strict construction,” “originalism,” or “original public meaning.” (I have discussed these terms earlier on this blog. You can search for them.) They believed in enforcing the text of a statute and did not seek out the drafters or adopters’ intentions in passing a law. They believed that precedent was important and should never be disregarded lightly.

          Pence, however, did not mention any of these conservative jurisprudential principles in complaining about Roberts. Instead, he emphasized the Court’s June ruling that ruled unconstitutional a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. “That’s a very modest restriction on abortion providers, but a narrow majority in the Supreme Court still said it was unacceptable,” Pence said. “And I think it’s been a wake-up call for pro-life voters around the country who understand, in a very real sense, the destiny of the Supreme Court is on the ballot in 2020.” (Pence’s notion of “modest” is striking since it was expected that the state rule would have forced all but one of the Louisiana’s abortion providers to close. I wonder if Pence would label as “modest” a gun control measure that would cause all but one of Louisiana’s gun shops to shutter.)

          Pence did not mention that only a few years ago, the Supreme Court had struck down an almost identical admitting-privileges requirement from another state. Roberts in his recent opinion wrote that he felt compelled by good, what might say, conservative jurisprudence to follow that precedent. My point, however, is not to defend Roberts or his decisions. (Roberts wrote the opinion and was the fifth vote in one of most important and least defensible Court decisions of last generation—Shelby County v. Holder, where the conservative justices aborted much of the Voting Rights Act thereby giving political conservatives more power.) Instead, we should see that the conservative Pence does not really want conservative justices. He wants judges who reach the “right” political, religious, and social outcomes as he as a conservative politician defines right. He does not care about neutral judicial principles, whether they be conservative principles or not. He wants a political, activist court of the kind conservatives used to rail against. And, once again, conservative principles disappear.

The vice president’s criticism of the chief justice’s jurisprudence comes after Roberts sided with the high court’s Democratic appointees on several occasions in recent months, dealing the Trump administration defeats on issues including LGBT workplace discrimination, immigration and abortion.

Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush, also joined his Democratic-appointed colleagues two weeks ago when the court rejected a Nevada church’s request to block the state’s cap on attendees for religious services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

John Roberts

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. | Leah Millis/AP Photo


The court’s public information office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Roberts on Pence’s interview.

Following the court’s rejection of his attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program’s protections for roughly 650,000 immigrants, President Donald Trump pledged in June to unveil a new list of potential justices ahead of November’s general election.

The announcement by the president represented a reprisal of a campaign tactic that helped him shore up conservative support during his 2016 White House run, when he issued a list of candidates he said he would consider appointing to the Supreme Court in an effort to win over evangelical voters.

“He did that in 2016. He kept his word,” Pence said Wednesday of Trump’s list. “He’s going to do that in the fall of 2020, and in the next four years, he’ll keep his word and appoint more principled conservatives to our courts.”

Since assuming office, Trump has routinely touted his presidency’s rapid rate of judicial confirmations — including the hard-won installations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the high court — to energize his base in public remarks and at political rallies.

But it was Gorsuch who sided in June with Roberts and the court’s Democratic appointees in the landmark LGBT anti-discrimination case, authoring the majority opinion ruling to protect gay, lesbian and transgender employees from being disciplined, fired or turned down for a job based on their sexual orientation.