July 5, 2005

Trying to control what the next Justice will have to say.

Todd Purdum has this piece in the NYT about the way Supreme Court Justices have disappointed the Presidents who chose them. The classic quotes of the miffed Presidents are there: "I could carve out of a banana a judge with more backbone than that," etc.

And here's a quote from Chief Justice Rehnquist:
[T]he court "is an institution far more dominated by centrifugal forces, pushing towards individuality and independence, than it is by centripetal forces pulling for hierarchical ordering and institutional unity."
Funny, since the front page of yesterday's NYT had Linda Greenhouse talking about the way there is a strong centripetal force on the Court (which I agreed with). But Greenhouse's centripetal force metaphor referred to the Justices' tendency to move to the ideological center, while Rehnquist used that metaphor to mean adherence to the ideology the President perceived in the judge at the time of appointment. So there is no real disagreement here. The Justices acting independently -- affected by the Chief's "centrifugal force" -- are breaking away from the ideology they brought to the Court and, if they move to the center, this Rehnquistian "centifugal" move is the Greenhousian "centripetal" move.

Strange how we picture a person's ideology as a thing existing in space and subject to the principles of physics!

Do you ever look critically at the diagram of politics you've got stored in your head that you use all the time without thinking much about? How about that mental picture of the Court? It's pretty simplistic, isn't it?

I wish Presidents would choose judges who are deep and serious thinkers with enough dimension and substance that we wouldn't be able to form such a simple picture. I wish the opinions were written by people whose work I would be interested in reading if it had no grand authoritative power to it.


Too Many Jims said...

Centrifugal force vs. centripetal force? They didn't teach me that in law school. Maybe I should have paid more attention to physics.

Gerry said...

"I wish Presidents would choose judges who are deep and serious thinkers with enough dimension and substance that we wouldn't be able to form such a simple picture. "

This is not a failure of the Presidents or their nominees. It is a testimony to the imagination of people in general (perhaps being put to a less than admirable use).

I'll use the left to make my point, although I am sure that Kathleen B or someone else will be glad to chime in with examples from the right.

The left was more than willing to characterize Bush as a dim bulb, just as they did with Reagan, and as they did with Gerald Ford. They went with a modified version for Bush's father, characterizing him as an out of touch wimp. People were able to imagine these men as they wanted to imagine them in accord with their ideologic biases.

Of course, Reagan was not stupid, nor is Bush, nor was Ford, nor was Eisenhower. Bush the elder is anything but a wimp. But the simple pictures resonated, because people like to oversimplify things, particularly when it is done to be dismissive of perceived opponents.

Bruce Hayden said...

The problem though with wanting to read SC cases without having to (as Ann does, given what she teaches) is that, at least for me, the currently sitting justice I most like to read is Thomas - because of his passion. More than any other justice, I see him speaking a lot more from the heart.

But this is one of the places where he is (arguably) so condemned - that instead of counting the angels on the head of a pin, as legal scholors believe he should, he ignores precedent in making his heated appeals.

vnjagvet said...

I agree with your last paragraph. Alas that is not what either end of the political spectrum wants. Each end wants "agreement dammit". No ifs, ands or buts.

To me, anyone who fills the bill for either end of the spectrum is disqualified for intellectual fossilization.

yetanotherjohn said...

I think the issue has as much to do with charachter as anything else. How seductive is power? If you could sit in a room with 8 others and decide what the law of the land is by convincing 4 others, would your charachter hold you to your philosophy that would limit your power, or would you start to be beguiled by the capabilities of power to in act what you know is the correct thing?

Some people are drawn to compromise and everyone getting along. Others are drawn to controversy and enjoy seeing the strife. When we lived in caves and had limited resources, this was a benefit as some would stay and some would leave or be forced out to go to the next valley. If we were all compromisers, we wouldn't push out new groups, so we wouldn't have spread over the world. If we were all contentious, we wouldn't have cooperated to achieve the advances we have.

The question your post is really asking is if Kennedy is driven by compromise or by ideaology. Does he vote the way he does to balance between competing camps or because sometimes his ideaology places him in one camp or the other. O'Conner and Kennedy certainly seemed to take turns joining the conservative or liberal camps, but that could just as well be because they did not match on their ideaology.

P. G. said...

I'd probably read Scalia's writing without being forced, just for entertainment purposes...

Kathleen B. said...

yes, George 2 never did or said anything that would lead people to believe he was stupid. that was just the left.

(but, yes, the point is true I think that all people "left" and "right" tend to simplify public people, and forget how complex humans can be, and usually are. and since you asked, let's just recall some of the lovely boxes put around Bill and Hillary)

It did also make me laugh that you didn't dispute that Bush the Elder was "out of touch". *smile*