Americans believe that Supreme Court justices are biased and rule in line with their personal ideologies and preferences. There are many reasons for these conclusions. When justices such as Amy Coney Barrett tell us how unsullied they are, as she did recently, instead of just going about their judicial work, we can’t help but think about Gertrude and doth protesting too much methinks. But the American skepticism has other roots. Consider the present Chief Justice.
John Roberts in his confirmation hearings described the job in baseball terms: “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role.”
Roberts has been mocked for this statement, which revealed ignorance or disingenuousness, and since Roberts is smart, the latter is inferred. The Constitution contains numerous phrases that need interpretation, such as “direct taxes,” “the executive power,” “privileges and immunities of citizens,” “the due process of law,” and many others. Deciding cases involving such language is not the same as determining whether a batted ball is fair. Suggesting an equivalency between the umpire and the justice was an attempt to mask the inevitable values and policies that are involved in judging. While umpires do not make up the rules as the game progresses, Supreme Court justices in essence do. Issues are before the Supreme Court because they have not been decided before. If in deciding a case the Court must determine what is interstate commerce or what infringes the free exercise of religion, it is setting down that rule for the first time. It is making up the rules as it goes along.*
The choices justices make are not inevitable. Legal scholar Sanford Levinson was correct in saying, “There are as many plausible readings of the United States Constitution as there are versions of Hamlet, even though each interpreter, like each director, might genuinely believe that he or she has stumbled onto the one best answer to the conundrums of the texts.” Thus, an interpretation will never be entirely objective. Justice Benjamin Cardozo: “There is in each of us a stream of tendency, whether you choose to call it philosophy or not, which gives coherence and direction to thoughts and actions. Judges cannot escape that current any more than other mortals. Every problem finds its setting. We may try to see things as objectively as we please. None the less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own.” Justice Louis D. Brandeis made the same point: “I believe that our judges are as honest as you can make them. But like all of the rest of us they are subject to their environment.”
Judges are not gods. They cannot be purely objective, and like the rest of us, they cannot know everything that influences a decision. Cardozo again: “All their [judges’] lives, forces which they do not recognize and cannot name, have been tugging at them—inherited instincts, traditional beliefs, acquired convictions.” It is arrogance, chutzpah, or naïveté to proclaim objectivity for yourself and others as Barrett did, and the justice who unquestioningly believes in or promotes such objectivity is fooling herself. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said, “It is a misfortune if a judge reads his conscious or unconscious sympathy with one side or the other prematurely into the law, and forgets that what seems to him to be first principles are believed by half of his fellow men to be wrong.”
Justices without awareness of the limitations of their objectivity who do not practice what should be the accompanying humility are dangerous because the justices not only make up the rules, they make up the final ones. As Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is.” Or as the more acerbic H.L. Mencken defined: “Judge—A law student who marks his own examination papers.”
We should be leery—no scared—when a judge pretends his job is no different from being a baseball umpire or when another proclaims, “No judge is deciding a case in order to impose a policy result.” The first is blatantly wrong; the second attempts to obscure the fact that policy choices affect us all, including—gasp—the Supreme Court. If I may borrow a term I heard frequently in law offices, the courts, and the playing fields, “Don’t give me bullshit.” On that we should all agree.
* Roberts analogy was also wrong from baseball’s perspective and shows that he does not understand that endeavor either. Every fan knows that the strike zone varies in size and location depending on who is behind home plate. Some umpires have a wide zone and some a high one and so on. Perhaps whether the tennis ball landed within the service box would have been a better comparison for Roberts. Of course, now such calls are often automated and don’t require a human. I am quite confident, however, that no Supreme Court justice believes that he or she should be replaced by a machine.