A Non-partisan Argument Against Justice Obama

Hillary Clinton, never one to miss an opportunity to pander, told a prospective Iowa voter that he had “a great idea,” in suggesting she appoint Obama to the Supreme Court.

It’s a terrible idea, and that has nothing to do with how I feel about Obama’s presidency, his character, or his qualifications for the job.

My friend Ed Brayton, who blogs at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, noted on Facebook that “Obama’s record on civil liberties and in cases before the Supreme Court is pretty terrible. I would have no faith in him as a justice.” He has been bad on civil liberties, but sometimes people change their perspective when they’re in a different position (c.f., Earl Warren). I’m not positive Obama would be a horrible civil liberties justice (although I’d be happier with the appointment of someone with a better track record, for sure).

Others might worry that Obama is too much of a leftist, because apparently there are people who still believe that. I don’t find that a serious concern. More pointedly, some might note that he doesn’t have any judicial experience, and that having been a part-time teacher of constitutional law isn’t the most impressive resume for a SCOTUS appointee. But of course it’s a fairly recent tradition that all appointees must have lengthy judicial experience, and one that appears to me to be largely driven by the American Bar Association’s inappropriate assumption of the role or arbiter of qualifications for a public office (and we worry about the Koch brothers!). Personally, I I think there are umpteen thousand Americans who are qualified for the job, and presidents’ talk about selecting “the best” person is 100% FDA Prime bullshit. And a little less technical lawyering and a little more understanding of the Constitution as more than a legal document–I’m looking at you, Tony Scals–wold be good.

But my overriding concern is the growth of presidential power. And one of the factors promoting that has been a Supreme Court that has been less eager to check presidents, and that–according to political scientists Matt Crenson and Ben Ginsberg in their book Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced–is at least in part because more and more Supreme Court justices have extensive background in the executive branch, rather than gaining experience elsewhere. They become enculterated in the concerns and needs of the executive, and more willing to give presidents some leeway, rather than trying to keep them in check.

Presumably, presidents have always appointed judges whom they found politically congenial. What has changed is that preisdnets no longer choose judicial appointees with legislative backgrounds, and the political milieu in which judges originate presumably affects their institutional affinities and sympathies. During the nineteenth century, federal judges typically emerged from the country’s electoral and representative systems. …

The fact that many federal judges had served, continued to serve, and often would serve again as legislators helped to reinforce legislative primacy by ensuring that the federal bench would hvae a certain respect and partiality for legislative institutions. …

Judicial deference to legislative power has practically disappeared today …

What has changed in recent decades is the character of judges’ political and governmental experience. Few recent or contemporary federal judges have ever served in a legislative body, but many have served in executive agencies or in federal or state judicial institutions…Today’s judges are recruited primarily from executive and judicial positions, not from legislatures. [pp.305-314]

Crenson and Ginsberg have a table showing the decline of federal judges with judicial legislative experience from a high of almost 81% in 1830, to 38% in 1900–around the time presidential power began its upward trend–to 4% in 20005. We need fewer judges with executive backgrounds, not more, and certainly not one so deeply steeped in sympathy for the office of the presidency itself.

LBJ adviser George Reedy, in The Twilight of the Presidency regretted that the President has become so sheltered that there is no one to tell him “go soak your head” How likely is it that a Justice Obama would tell future presidents–not just a President Hillary Clinton, but a President Rubio, Cruz or Trump, too–to go soak their head?

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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2 Responses to A Non-partisan Argument Against Justice Obama

  1. “Crenson and Ginsberg have a table showing the decline of federal judges with judicial experience from a high of almost 81% in 1830, to 38% in 1900–around the time presidential power began its upward trend–to 4% in 20005. ”

    —> That doesn’t sound at all right to me. Checking the book, the table says:

    Table 8.1 is “Percentage of Federal Judges with Legislative Experience”

    So, judges have judicial experience (well, of course, they can’t for their very first judge job), just not *legistlative* experience. In part this is nothing more than the growth in population size, while the number of legislator jobs is about the same as in 1900.

  2. James Hanley says:

    Thanks, Nicholas. That’s an error on my part, it should have said “legislative experience,” as you suggest.

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