2008 The Supremes
posted by July 17 at 12:57 PMon
I’m a big fan of outgoing NYT Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, so I was kind of disappointed by her lackluster retrospective piece for last weekend’s Week in Review.
But her ongoing Q&A with readers this week is definitely worth checking out. For instance, Obama has been indicating he wants “people who have life experience and [who] understand what it means to be on the outside, what it means to have the system not work for them” on the Supreme Court—making it rather hard for federal court-watchers to guess who he’d nominate. Here’s Greenhouse on the subject:
Q. Do you think that the justices of the Supreme Court are becoming further removed from the everyday world of the average U.S. citizen and lawyer when so many of them have spent most, if not all of their careers, as judges or academics or both? If so, what does this portend for the future of the court, its decisions and respect for the court? —Charles L. Riter, South Dakota
A. I think I’m on safe ground in saying that the current court is the first in United States history on which every member’s immediate past job was as a judge on a federal appeals court. In the not-too-distant past, it was common to select justices from among leading figures in American public life—Earl Warren was a three-term governor of California who had run for vice president on the Republican ticket. Other members of the Warren Court had been senators, cabinet members, and presidential intimates.
There is general agreement that a greater diversity of background would be useful today. Some fine justices had never been judges at all (Powell, Rehnquist). Justice O’Connor had served only an intermediate state court. Being on the Supreme Court is an inherently isolating experience, so the life experiences that justices bring with them matter perhaps more than in other venues. The experience of advising clients, helping real people solve problems, or working in a different branch or level of government could perhaps help a justice insist less on doctrinal purity and more on real solutions to our legal problems. The early justices lived in boarding houses and “rode circuit,”: sitting as federal trial judges in distant cities, often at great inconvenience and sometimes peril. Clearly the framers of the Constitution didn’t expect justices of the Supreme Court to lead remote, isolated lives. (For a fascinating historical novel based on the lives of the early justices and their wives, see “A More Obedient Wife” by Natalie Wexler.)