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Barack Obama Law Political Philosophy Politics The Opinionsphere

Replacing Souter

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.

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Law

What’s Next: The Court

Before the election, some Republicans were trying to gin up some controversy by imputing obscure and extreme judicial views on Barack Obama – focusing especially on remarks he made in July 2007, described here by The Hill:

“[Chief] Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire,” Obama said. “But the issues that come before the court are not sports; they’re life and death. We need somebody who’s got the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom.”

Obama said that 95 percent of cases can be judged on intellect, but that the other 5 percent are the most important ones.

“In those 5 percent of cases, you’ve got to look at what is in the justice’s heart, what’s their broader vision of what America should be,” Obama said, adding that justices should understand what it’s like to be gay, poor or black as well.

Steven Calebrisi, founder of the Federalist Society, wrote a very influential piece appearing in the Wall Street Journal in which he combined the most extreme possible interpretations of the statement about empathy (first taken out of context) with a somewhat bizarre (but politically very useful for the McCain camp) interpretation of remarks Obama made in a 2001 radio interview about the Warren Court. This led Calebrisi to the grandiose conclusion that:<

Nothing less than the very idea of liberty and the rule of law are at stake in this election. We should not let Mr. Obama replace justice with empathy in our nation’s courtrooms.

Putting aside the fact that Calebrisi did not find it necessary to raise his voice against those who used his own legal theory – that of the unitary executive – to actually and explicitly place the president above the law, Calebresi’s concern here is misplaced, as I think you can see just by reading the passage above from The Hill.

But if Calebresi’s half-assed op-ed doesn’t help us understand who Obama would appoint to the Court, then what does?

After all, Supreme Court appointments can be a president’s greatest legacy – affecting policy for many years after a president has gone.

Potential Supreme Court Justices

Obama, as a former constitutional law professor, has obviously put a great deal of thought into who he might appoint to the Supreme Court. Many names have been floated – politicians like Jennifer Granholm, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton, and Ken Salazar; academics such as Harold Koh, Elena Kagan, and Cass Sunstein as wel as a number of current judges. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens likely to retire during Obama’s term, and David Souter wishing – according to Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine – to withdraw back to the19th century lifestyle he enjoys in New Hampshire away from the Court, Obama could get three – and if Obama is reelected in 2012 – even four nominations to the Court. Justice Scalia will undoubtably do everything possible to avoid retiring during Obama’s presidency, but he is getting older as well – and would be 80 by 2016. Justice Kennedy would be 80 as well – but he does seem to so enjoy being the swing vote that it is hard to see him ever leaving the Court.

Superficial factors in choosing the justices

  • Any justices Obama appoints will undoubtably be younger than is traditional – as Bush recently appointed two conservatives in their 50s in Roberts and Alito.
  • It is also likely that, as the Supreme Court has traditionally been factionalized by race, religion, and gender – from the mid-1800s when there was a “Jewish seat” on the Court and a “Catholic seat” to focus on keeping women and African Americans since the 1980s – Obama will want to appoint at least one woman and on Hispanic to the Court.

The Dynamics of the Court

Obama has spoken of how Justice Warren – as a former politician – was able to win majorities by winning over the other justices. Jeffrey Toobin, writing about the Court over the past decade, has described Sandra Day O’Conner having a similar role during her tenure. In fact, since the Court’s founding, former politicians have had a way of dominating the stately and apolitical Court – beginning with John Marshall. Which is why the first appointment Obama makes should be a former politician – probably a woman. Especially if John Paul Stevens, the unofficial leader of the liberal wing of the Court, retires, Obama will want a strong personality to take his place. As Janet Napolitano is the favorite to become Attorney General, that leaves Jennifer Granholm, Governor of Michigan and a former state attorney general as the most logical choice.

Beyond this first choice of a female politician, Obama’s options are more open.

For his second nomination I would reccomend an academic – Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law, or Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law, would be the logical choices here – as both are young and prominent liberals in academia. Koh’s name has apparently been generating real buzz as a potential Obama pick.

Certain to be on any short list is Cass Sunstein is an important legal scholar and a close friend of Obama’s. He recently wrote a book with the conservative economist Richard Thaler about libertarian paternalism.

There is one potential candidate I have not heard mentioned though – and especially if Scalia were to retire from the bench, this former Scalia law clerk, former Reaganite, and former libertarian would be the perfect choice – Lawrence Lessig, whose innovative work founding Creative Commons and now the Change Congress movement, and whose influential work on internet law, copyright and corruption have made him a legal star.

Libertarianism v. Liberalism

With these four appointments, Obama could profoundly alter the Supreme Court’s ideological make-up – by replacing the traditional statist liberals and Rockefeller Republicans on the Court making up it’s current left wing with a charismatic pragmatist, and other liberal, and two libertarian-influenced liberals.