There’s a few different schools of thought on how Obama should go about replacing Justice David Souter. Dahlia Lithwick – a few months ago – called on Obama to make his next appointment “a hero, a bomb-throwing, passionate, visionary, liberal Scalia.” Others are just calling for Obama to place someone liberal enough to counter-balance the extreme conservatives appointed by Bush. Conservatives and right-wingers are calling on Obama to appoint someone “moderate” – though given the political circumstances, it is almost guaranteed that they will not accept any appointment, no matter how “moderate.” All of this is based on a rather direct analysis of the Supreme Court – presuming that decisions are and will be made based on political viewpoints.
I’m not trying to say that we should accept Justice Roberts’s oft-cited analysis of the judge as umpire – just calling the law as he sees it. I thought Obama made an excellent point back in July 2007 when he critiqued this view:
When Roberts came up and everybody was saying, “You know, he’s very smart and he’s seems a very decent man and he loves his wife. You know, he’s good to his dog. He’s so well qualified.”
I said, well look, that’s absolutely true and … in the overwhelming number of Supreme Court decisions, that’s enough. Good intellect, you read the statute, you look at the case law and most of the time, the law’s pretty clear. Ninety-five percent of the time. Justice Ginsberg, Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia they’re all gonna agree on the outcome.
But it’s those five percent of the cases that really count. And in those five percent of the cases, what you’ve got to look at is—what is in the justice’s heart. What’s their broader vision of what America should be. Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire but the issues that come before the Court are not sport, they’re life and death. And we need somebody who’s got the heart—the empathy—to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old—and that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges. Alright?
Ed Whelan over at the Corner is trying to make a big deal out of what he’s calling Obama’s lie – which is that judicial philosophy is unimportant. He cites the above quote as proof Obama thinks judicial philosophy is unimportant – but he doesn’t seem to have read it closely, as you can clearly see Obama say:
[I]t’s those five percent of the cases that really count.
The person Whelan really should be attacking – if he believes judicial philosophy is unimportant – is Justice Roberts who sought to minimize the role of politics in his decisions (at least in his pre- and post-appointment rhetoric.)
But what I’m interested most in is a justice who can move the other members of the Court – either through personality or their compelling understanding of the law. One historical type that has moved the Court would be a politician – such as Sandra Day O’Connor or Earl Warren – whose personality drew other justices to accept some of their decisions, and gradually shaped the Court over time. This is why I think it’s a bad idea to appoint a liberal version of Justice Scalia – whose personality actually hurt his politics. Jennifer Granholm is a good possibility on this front. As would Hillary Clinton or Al Gore if they were only younger.
In the alternative, Obama could appoint an ideologically interesting thinker – who is liberal, but nevertheless, thinks outside of the box. The two people that come to mind on this score are Cass Sunstein and Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is probably too young yet – and Sunstein has not only encountered surprising resistance to his appointment to an obscure position, but he probably would like an opportunity to take a crack at enhancing that position and testing his theories on libertarian paternalism.
Finally, I like Harold Koh for the post – even though it is unlikely he fits into any of the above two categories. He’s national security thinker with a great resume. I don’t know his record on most issues – but I’ve heard him speak on national security law – my main interest – and he has strong, nuanced positions, viewing our national security apparatus as a whole system rather than as a series of isolated issues. He would be a strong voice in reigning in an executive branch that has barely pulled back in terms of it’s assertions of power in the national security arena.