Some group of 9 individuals will say what the law is for us all. What sort of individuals do you want? Assume fine intellectual credentials and solid relevant experience. Aside from that, what sort of individual characteristics make you want to give a man or woman this immense responsibility?
Here's what Obama said after David Souter revealed his intention to leave the Supreme Court:
Justice Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. He came to the bench with no particular ideology. He never sought to promote a political agenda.Feverish... that is the out-of-place word that tells us something about Obama. Souter sounds utterly cool — if anything, too cold to trust with the grand decisions of life and liberty submitted to the Court.
He approached judging as he approaches life, with a feverish work ethic and a good sense of humor, with integrity, equanimity and compassion -- the hallmark of not just being a good judge, but of being a good person.
The key thing Obama has told us about what he wants in a Supreme Court Justice is empathy:
I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes. I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role. I will seek somebody who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded, and who brings a thoughtful understanding of how to apply them in our time.Obama — like many lawprofs — believes (or purports to believe) that emotion and engagement with real life is integral to constitutional interpretation. This is different (or certainly purports to be different) from deciding cases according to one's sympathies. But even understood that way, Obama's favorite qualification would obviously have excluded the bookish, reclusive Souter.
That word "empathy" stoked the Sunday talk shows:
“What does that mean? Usually that’s a code word for an activist judge,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said on ABC’s “This Week.”...And who was more monk-like than David Souter?
“I may have empathy for, for the little guy in a fight with a big corporation, but the law may not be on his side. So I think that’s a concern,” former Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“What I hear in President Obama’s statement is that he wants the justices of the court to try to understand the real world we live in and the impact of some of these decisions. Apply the law, but do it in a sensible fashion,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said on “Fox News Sunday.”...
Obama’s comments Friday about judges needing to identify “with people’s hopes and struggles” and the reaction to those remarks seemed to cast the early debate in a way that is likely to favor Democrats — especially at a time of economic distress, when Wall Street and big corporations are widely regarded by many as a greater threat than the rulings of federal judges.
In fact, the anti-establishment attitude that powered Obama’s campaign remains strong enough that there is serious discussion of putting a nonjudge, or even a nonlawyer, on the court, which presently consists entirely of former federal appeals court judges.
“I would like to see more people from outside the judicial monastery, somebody who has had some real-life experience, not just as a judge,” Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said on ABC.
It's funny. For years, I've heard conservatives cry "No more Souters!" But now, I'm hearing the Democrats say that too. All due respect will be paid to the retiring Justice, but he isn't what they want.
And frankly, he isn't what they should want. The Court needs a forthright liberal. And Obama is perfectly entitled to pick such an individual. Of course, this person will — as Obama said — be dedicated to the rule of law, honor constitutional tradition, and respect the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role. But he or she will do all of this in the liberal mode. I hope to see a fine Justice who will show us how this is done.