Before the ink was dry on her nomination to the Supreme Court, right-wing news articles and fundraising emails attacked Ketanji Brown Jackson. One said that she had “taken radical, liberal positions throughout her career” without giving even a hint as to what those positions were. A different writer labeled her “a politician in robes.”
The writings did not contain a glimpse of irony or even the slightest acknowledgement that only recently conservative Supreme Court Justices have themselves been criticized as partisans. This criticism came as a result of issuing opinions with scanty or no reasoning that followed their own political predilections and that of their patrons; allowing unconstitutional laws to be enforced; and bending judicial norms to hear cases that have political overtones.
The conservative justices had to know that their actions would look political and produce vehement criticisms, but you might expect them to simply ignore the critics. When I was a baseball umpire, I expected disagreement with some of my calls. I knew that I should not umpire if I could not handle criticism. If you take a judgeship, you should not be surprised by criticism. And if anyone should feel secure from critics, it would be an insular band of people who have both power and life tenure.
However, the comments about the Court made some justices feel like paper flowers in the rain.* Ignoring the fact that defensiveness often gives greater credence to the critics, several justices made replies. The most quotable “defense” came from Amy Coney Barrett who announced that the Supreme Court “is not comprised of partisan hacks.” Of course, it would have been even more newsworthy if Barrett had said that the Court was filled with partisan hacks, but, nevertheless, the whine indicated how touchy some members of the Supreme Court are.
Now, if you are looking for self-conscious irony, don’t go to the conservatives on the Supreme Court. Whether or not she is a partisan, she is sitting on the Court because of naked partisan power, and she made her statement in a place that honors a person no one would ever sanely label as nonpartisan, Mitch McConnell. And yes, if she has an ounce of gratitude, she should be indebted to him for his partisanship.
If Barrett, for unfathomable reasons, thought her ex cathedra-like statement would end discussion of the topic, she was undercut by her colleague Justice Samuel Alito. A month or so after Barrett announced the absence of judicial partisanship, Alito made a speech to the Federalist Society, a group not widely known for its even-handed policies. Many sources concluded that this speech was so highly partisan that it should have raised ethical concerns for a judge. However, Supreme Court justices are not bound by the ethical standards set for other judges—disturbing yet true. So, on the one hand, we have Barrett’s assertion, not supported by any evidence or reasoning, about the lack of partisanship on the Court, and then we have the stark evidence of a partisan speech by a Justice. Chicolini’s classic comeback in Duck Soup comes to mind: “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
But maybe, I thought, I was being unfair to Barrett. Perhaps her statement was more limited than I had first believed. Reports say that she is smart and a meticulous judge. She, no doubt, tries to use words precisely. She asserted that the Court “is not comprised of partisan hacks.” I went to H.W. Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. In it he discusses the difference between include and comprise: “[T]he distinction seems to be that comprise is appropriate when what is in question is the content of the whole, and include when it is the admission or presence of an item. With include, there is no presumption that all or even most of the components are mentioned; with comprise, the whole of them are understood to be in the list.” With her use of comprise, then, Barrett was only telling me that not all the Supreme Court Justices were partisan hacks. However, she might be signaling–with lawyerly precision–that it includes some. Or perhaps she is conveying that some justices are partisan but not hacks or hacks but not partisan? Alito comes to mind again. Many commentators, citing several examples, say that Alito is a partisan. They almost never label him a hack; instead, they almost always refer to how smart he is.
Of course, I may be giving Barrett too much credit for using words precisely. After all, she did use the phrase comprised of, a definite grammatical no-no. The prickly Fowler believes that the English language might be better off with the banishment of comprise: “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.” Perhaps when it comes to words, Barrett is not a conservative standard bearer. Even if that might be laudable, comprised of is not to be praised, at least according to Benjamin Dreyer who writes about comprise in the immodestly titled Dreyer’s English: “I confess: I can barely remember which is the right way to use this word.” He says that he looks it up each time he is tempted to use it. Dreyer tells us that it is correct to say, “The English alphabet comprises twenty-six letters.” And this, too, is right: “Twenty-six letters compose the English alphabet.” But it is wrong to write, “The English alphabet is comprised of twenty-six letters.” Dreyer writes, “As soon as you’re about to attach ‘of’ to the word ‘comprise,’ raise your hands to the sky and edit yourself.”
Of course, you might tell me to lighten up. Don’t parse her words so closely. C’mon; you get the gist of her meaning. Don’t take her so literally. It’s not a big deal if she was imprecise. But, my friends, she is a Supreme Court justice, and when she writes an opinion, no matter how loose its reasoning, no matter how imprecise it may be, it will have important consequences. Barrett may be making decisions that control us for the next thirty or forty years. And precision should matter for a Justice. As Fred R. Shapiro writes in The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, “Law is the intersection of language and power.”
I wonder if Barrett will continue to suggest how nonpartisan the Court is if Ketanji Brown Jackson ascends the Court. Conservatives of all stripes are accusing her (Jackson) of being partisan. What kind of hypocrisy is this? Well, we can rest in the assurance from Barrett that she, at least in her own opinion, is not a political hack. Or can we?
*“Only paper flowers are afraid of the rain.” Konstantin Dankevich.