My old legal ethics (Yeah, I know, attorneys are taught ethics?) professor, Ron Rotunda, has a fascinating opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune recalling a time in 1994 when he was in a small group that heard the late Justice Harry Blackmun defend his decision in Roe v. Wade:
Blackmun said Justice Byron White wrote a bitter dissent, referring to “raw judicial power.” With a strong emphasis in his voice, Blackmun quipped: “I made Byron eat those words later in other cases.” When White announced his dissent, “White was emotional.” Blackmun asked rhetorically: “Why was White so strong against my view? His upbringing in modest circumstances? Or his wife’s influence?”
It did not occur to Blackmun that White based his dissent on the court’s precedent. Blackmun said, “We tried to decide the case on a constitutional basis, not a moral basis.” Blackmun did not give that presumption to White.
Another Blackmun disclosure: “To date, I’ve gotten almost 70,000 letters on Roe. I have read almost all of them.” He said many letters are “abusive” and he was amazed that many people objected to his decision. “Shortly after I spoke in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I was picketed. I was surprised.”
The Constitution gives federal judges lifetime appointments, so that they don’t feel compelled to follow public opinion in deciding cases. Blackmun, however, apparently did follow it. He was pleased that a “New York Times editorial was in favor,” but noted that letters to the editor “were divided.”
Roe “protected the woman’s right, with the physician, to get an abortion.” Blackmun emphasized the italicized phrase with his voice. He spoke of the case as a doctor’s rights case, not a woman’s right case. In Roe, Blackmun said, for the first trimester, “the attending physician, in consultation with his patient, is free to determine, without regulation by the state, that, in his medical judgment, the patient’s pregnancy should be terminated.” Note that the right was the right of the physician, whom Blackmun assumed was male.
Blackmun explicitly rejected the argument that “one has an unlimited right to do with one’s body as one pleases.” Instead, in Roe, Blackmun cited, with approval, Buck v. Bell, a 1927 case that approved of compulsory sterilization. Continue reading
Chief Justice John Roberts’ recent decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, as well as his vote to overturn much of Arizona’s illegal immigration law, has made conservatives think that yet again a Republican president was bamboozled. Personally I think it’s a bit early to completely write off the Chief Justice. For most of his tenure he’s been a fairly reliable conservative vote, and there is still much time (presumably) before he retires. Then we will be better able to assess his legacy.
It did get me thinking, though. What are the worst Supreme Court selections in history? I’m looking at this question in terms of the president doing the selecting. Someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a doctrinaire liberal, wouldn’t make the cut because no doubt she has voted in much the way Bill Clinton would have wished when he picked her. Similarly, I do not include someone like John Paul Stevens. Though over time he veered much further to the left than Gerald Ford or his Attorney General , Edward Levi (who basically made the selection) could have anticipated, Stevens’ jurisprudence was not that radically removed from Ford’s own preferences. In fact, Ford wrote of Stevens:
For I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thrity years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court. I endorse his constitutional views on the secular character of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, on securing procedural safeguards in criminal case and on the constitution’s broad grant of regulatory authority to Congress. I include as well my special admiration for his charming wit and sense of humor; as evidence in his dissent in the 1986 commerce clause case of Maine v. Taylorand United States, involving the constitutionality of a Maine statute that broadly restricted any interstate trade of Maine’s minnows. In words perhaps somewhat less memorable then, “Shouting fire in a crowded theater,” Justice Stevens wrote, “There is something fishy about this case.”
He has served his nation well, at all times carrying out his judicial duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns. Justice Stevens has made me, and our fellow citizens, proud of my three decade old decision to appoint him to the Supreme Court. I wish him long life, good health and many more years on the bench.
Well, if Ford was willing to base his legacy on his choice of John Paul Stevens, then I’m happy to call Gerald Ford a miserable failure.
This, then, is a list of the biggest mistakes in Supreme Court selection. Continue reading