The Politics of Judging
Howard Bashman follows the judicial confirmation process closely at How Appealing. A recent post on the subject noted flaws in all three of the principal methods of judicial selection: election, appointment by the executive from a group of candidates recommended by a nonpartisan panel, and appointment by the executive with confirmation by the legislative branch. Reflecting on how the processes could be improved, Howard writes: "One way to improve the federal method is to restore federal judges to the traditional role of judging rather than forcing them to be arbiters of the most difficult social/legislative issues of the day."
I assume that by this Howard means something more than the standard call against "judicial activism." That phrase has come to represent, for people across the political spectrum, little more than the rendering of decisions with which they disagree. In the 1980s, charges of judicial activism were usually directed by right-leaning critics against left-leaning judges; nowadays, the charge is increasingly leveled by left-leaning critics against right-leaning judges. It's evident from Howard's post that he sees judicial activism in the actions of "the Florida Supreme Court that worked so diligently to install President Gore and Vice President Lieberman," whereas I see it in the unprecedented (and, depending on how you read the Court's per curiam opinion, non-precedential) intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court that ended the election controversy. Those conclusions say more about Howard's and my political sympathies than they do about our philosophies of judging.
So what does Howard mean? In support of his assertion, he cites an essay at law.com by Todd Gaziano of the Heritage Foundation. That essay focuses on changes in prevailing judicial philosophy, away from the notion prevalent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that judges (in Gaziano's words) "can objectively discern what the law is, rather than what it should be," and toward a philosophy of "[l]egal realism, mingled with strains of pragmatism, relativism and deconstructionist thought" that "came to see law as just politics by another name" and "increasingly urged the courts to become instruments of social change in overtly political ways."
There's no doubt that changes in ways of thinking about the nature of the law have affected the ways that judges approach their tasks (although the notion that judges ever "objectively discern[ed] what the law is" strikes me as quite naïve). But I think that Gaziano's essay and Howard's post overlook an important reason why judges have become increasingly embroiled in what look like political controversies. The past seventy years have not merely seen the rise of legal realism and its successors; they have also seen a dramatic expansion in the scope of federal statutory law. Given the rise of public law and the regulatory state, it should surprise no one that federal judges now find themselves addressing questions that would have seemed foreign to their nineteenth-century predecessors.
Indeed, it could easily be argued that it's the rising activism of Congress and the executive branch that has caused the increasing politicization of the judiciary. This happens in several ways, but perhaps most importantly these: First, Congress frequently does a lousy job of writing legislation. More particularly, Congress frequently passes legislation designed to address social problems (and thus to please voters) without wanting to commit on the tough questions of how their legislation is to be implemented. The Americans With Disabilities Act is a prime example of this type of legislation: Congress, together with the first President Bush, wanted to do something about discrimination against individuals with disabilities (a worthy goal), but the political branches were either unable or unwilling to strike the necessary compromises to create a comprehensible law; instead, they left it to the judiciary to work out those compromises through the process of interpretation. The ADA is a prominent example of the problem, but it is far from the only one; the U.S. Code is riddled with messy statutes. As judges generally don't have the option of throwing up their hands and refusing to apply a law passed by Congress and signed by the president on the ground that the law is incoherent, they have little choice but to become entangled in what look like political decisions.
Second, the political branches sometimes take advantage of the process of judicial review to create laws that are patently unconstitutional but electorally popular based on transient political moods. In this way, they can appear to take actions to please their constituents, knowing full well that those laws will never take effect; they also gain the benefit of being able to deflect the public's frustration with the ultimate resolution of the problem from themselves onto the judiciary. The Communications Decency Act of 1996, which sought to regulate speech over the internet, is a prime example of this type of statute; in the 1997 case of Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court struck down the statute on First Amendment grounds. In this way, Congress and President Clinton were able to appear to act against indecency on the internet, knowing that because the Supreme Court would patrol the constitutional boundaries, they themselves did not have to consider seriously the constitutional issues.
Howard is ultimately correct that courts are far more political entities now than they used to be. But the fault is not solely, or even largely, the courts'. As long as the political branches continue to force the courts to address essentially political questions, the politicization of the judiciary is near inevitable.
[Note: following an email exchange with Howard, I have deleted the final portion of this post, which expressed some concerns about the direction of Howard's weblog based on a single post of his. Our exchange has convinced me that I misinterpreted Howard's intent, for which I apologize. Howard expressed an interest in responding to the principal point of my post but an understandable reluctance to link to the post in light of the final portion, which would have drawn him into a debate he did not want to have. In the interest of continuing the discussion of the politicization of the federal judiciary, and out of respect for Howard's fine work on How Appealing, I thought it best to amend my post.]