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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court: Ideology in Jurisprudence

Should the electorate in a republic be able to remove Supreme Court justices due to their past decisions on particular cases? Can this basis be distinguished from removing a justice for judicial incompetence? One thing is clear: the general public does not have the technical expertise to perform a “supervisor’s evaluation” on a judge. Obviously, anyone can see that someone who skips work on a regular basis is not fit for the job, but this is different than evaluating a job by the technical criteria of the profession. Distinguishing between a particular decision and general judicial approach, for example, is more difficult. Moreover, it can be difficult to balance the rights of popular sovereignty (i.e., rule by the people) against the rule of law without respect to majority opinion.

                                                       The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.

To the extent that a justice’s interpretation of the law involves his or her political ideology given the discretion or latitude involved in jurisprudence, the electorate in a republic has a claim on who should serve as a justice. To be sure, constitutional amendment is another means by which the people can overcome a supreme court, though this route is cumbersome and limited to a particular case or area of law. The element of political ideology in a constitutional-law decision means that a clear line of separation does not exist between politics and constitutional jurisprudence. Accordingly, the following view can be criticized.

“I think it’s a mistake for a party, as a party, to state a position that a certain judge should be thrown out, because then you are introducing partisanship into a system that is supposed to be nonpartisan,” said Bob Martinez, a prominent Republican lawyer who was once the United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida. “And when you have elected officials, on the right or left, criticizing judges publicly it can become very dangerous and it can undermine the public’s faith in the judiciary.” It is also very dangerous to have a very few number of unelected citizens serving as justices making de facto final decisions involving political ideology. Moreover, the ideological differences frequently present on a bench means that partisanship is already present, even if it is subtly filtered through the prism of jurisprudence.

In the case of southeastern Florida, the institution of justice itself can be subject to severe repute—that is, whether it exists at all. Once when visiting Miami, I tried to enter a local bus at the bus-transfer-station at a regional train station. I say tried because just as I was stepping into the bus, a large black man of about 25 years old who was standing to the side just outside the bus body-slammed me against the opened bus-door to force me out of the doorway. Not all the black people had entered, and the man presumed the right to force me out with a slam. The bus driver saw the violence, and yet refused my request that he contact his company and the police. “That’s just the way it is here,” the black driver told me. "You should not have gotten on then." The sheer blatant nature of the violence and the driver’s reaction gave me the impression that anti-white racism is systemic in Miami and that the system of justice there is at best partial, or prejudiced. Days later, I mentioned the incident to a Miami Beach policeman. “We have cameras on every bus; it didn’t happen.” His attitude being obviously corrupted, I thanked him for his time and walked away. The decadence or corruption of a society is systemic in nature; it is best, therefore, simply to avoid such places even for a brief stay.

Given the corruption and anti-white racism in Miami, a political party may have good reason to target three justices sitting on Florida’s Supreme Court for presuming that the criminal justice system can afford to be sacrificed to legal technicalities. That the three justices had “judged” legal technicalities as sufficient to free a man who had tied up and lit someone on fire suggests that the plight of the justices can be tied indirectly (as enablers) to the systemic injustice in Miami-Dade. That is, Floridians looking unfavorably at the decadence in Miami "culture" may judge Florida’s justice system to be inadequate and thus in need of justices who view it as such. It can even be said that removing the justices was a duty of Floridians who oppose outright aggression in public and enabling by county employees.

The notion that political ideology, including whether the system of justice is sufficient for there to be the rule of law in a society, is somehow absent in a constitutional court’s decisions is perhaps one of the most invisible or unknown naiveties in modern Western civics. One does not have to go back to Gore v. Bush (2000) to detect the presence of an ideological agenda in constitutional court decisions. The Citizens United (2010) case, for example, also decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, involves the ideological view that money is speech and corporations are legal persons and thus having the right of free speech. These positions are not founded in jurisprudence, but rather in ideology concerning wealth and power.

Typically, a justice seeks to portray his or her ideological positions through the lenses of his method of interpreting the constitution, as if such a device rendered the moral values as judicial interpretation. For example, Justice Scalia calls his method “originalist,” “original intent,” or “textualist,” meaning that he applies the words in the Constitution as they were understood by the people who wrote, proposed, and ratified them. It so happens that this method is consistent, at least to Scalia, with his social conservatism. Capital punishment was allowed in 1787, so that practice could not have been viewed, at least by the majority of the conventions’ delegates, as cruel and unusual punishment.

The sheer ease with which Scalia claims he can make decisions on cases in which conservative social ideology is salient suggests that something more is going on than constitutional interpretation. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in 2012, for instance, he said, “The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state.” At the very least, Scalia’s own statement does not privilege judicial interpretation; rather, he describes the possible cases in terms of social issues rather than constitutional doctrines. Put another way, if the cases involving such issues are so easy, then they could (and should) be put to the electorate as referendums. Scalia belies his own (and his colleagues’) relatively unique claim to technical expertise, and thus winds up making my point for me—more is going on in U.S. Supreme Court decisions than simply applying methods of constitutional interpretation to legal doctrines and the facts of particular cases. That “something more” can be excised and assigned to legislatures or the people.

As still another example, the U.S. Supreme Court once again weighted in on affirmative action in October 2012. The Wall Street Journal reported that the "80 minutes of intense argument revealed deep fissures among justices' views on the pursuit of diversity in higher education." The fissures just happen to go along with how liberal or conservative the justices were on social issues. In my view, whether the state governments have a compelling interest in diversity in higher education is not a judicial matter because diversity itself is an ideological value. Elected representatives, or the electorate itself, could decide the matter with more legitimacy than in relying on Justice Kennedy's view on affirmative action.

It is not impossible that a constitutional court itself could put to the electorate questions oriented to the ideological element. This would enable justices to concentrate instead on technical judicial matters, which constitute the “turf” on which the juridical expertise is based. In other words, in not being so greedy or “over-reaching,” the justices and the court itself would have more legitimacy. To those who say that putting a referendum to the people, say on whether capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment, would introduce politics into the decision, I submit that politics are inherent in the decisions already, given the element of political or social ideology. In short, a direct relationship is possible between a supreme court and the people, bypassing the other branches of government. Just as the U.S. Government can bypass the state governments to have direct effect on the people, the U.S. Supreme Court could talk directly with the people via adding questions to the ballot. Alternatively, a court could direct the chief executive or legislature to decide or put to the people questions concerning ideology that bears on a decision. Not being elected, justices do not have legitimacy in determining such questions. Scalia’s statement reads like one that one might hear in a barber shop (or so I would imagine).

In Iowa after its Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, the republic’s electorate voted to remove three of the justices who had joined in the majority opinion. In effect, the majority of those citizens who voted were saying that the decision was not just one of judicial interpretation. To be sure, the court’s decision included the juridical matters of constitutional rights irrespective of majority rule, and constitutional method or interpretation more generally.  Nevertheless, the ideological question of whether marriage as an institution should be extended to couples of the same sex was also in the mix. Separating two elements in one decision and weighing the qualitatively different (though not disparate) strands is very difficult, to say the least.

A conflict of interest exists in majority rule weighing its own right against the rights of individuals or a minority faction, but it is also problematic to rely on nine unelected people to decide a society’s meaning of marriage unless there is also constitutional language on language itself (rather than more general clauses that might pertain). Interpretation without the ideological element presupposes more direct constitutional language than “due process” or “equal protection.” Accordingly, the court and the people, as well as their elected representatives, all have a role in what is regarded as “legal opinions” in constitutional law.


Lizette Alvarez, “G.O.P. Aims to Remake Florida Supreme Court,” The New York Times, October 3, 2012.

Mark Sherman, “Antonin Scalia: Death Penalty, Abortion, ‘Homosexual Sodomy’ Are Easy Cases,” The Huffington Post, October 5, 2012.

Jesse Braven, "Justices Clash on Affirmative Action," The Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2012.