Supreme Court observers have expressed surprise and some have voiced criticism that Neil Gorsuch has been so assertive at oral argument and in his opinions so early in his tenure. Most justices have taken some time to decide how to approach this very important job. Justice Stephen Breyer in fact claimed he was “frightened to death” for his first three years.
But Gorsuch’s confident performance flows directly from his formal conception of law. Being a Supreme Court justice for a formalist is no different from being any other kind of judge and in particular no different from being the Court of Appeals judge Gorsuch had been for over ten years. Under this view, the lawful judge should render judgment on the basis of his best judgment about the meaning of statutory and constitutional provisions that are put before him or her and candidly set out the reasoning in support, regardless of the political consequences and regardless of what others think. Thus, as a formalist and experienced judge Justice Gorsuch was able to act forcefully from day one on the Supreme Court.
In contrast, for non-formalists like Justice Breyer, the work of the Supreme Court is fundamentally different from that of other judges because in many cases justices must act more like pragmatic statesmen rather than formalist jurists.
The recent case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer raises the question of whether a church can be excluded from a competitive process for awarding state aid—in this case funding rubber floors on playgrounds to protect children when they fall.
The most powerful doctrinal argument for the Church is that a decision in its favor treats the Free Exercise Clause like other constitutional rights. A citizen (or other bearer of rights) cannot be forced to give up something provided by the state because he is exercising a constitutional right, absent a compelling state interest. As Justice Elena Kagan said at oral argument, “it is as strong as any constitutional principle that there is, that when we have a program of funding — and here we’re funding playground surfaces — that everybody is entitled that funding, to — to that particular funding, whether or not they exercise a constitutional right.”
Justice Kagan was describing the so-called unconstitutional conditions doctrine and she was correct that it is regularly applied across the range of constitutional rights. It is the pull of this doctrine and the felt need to make its application consistent that it is likely to move a very large majority of the Court, including Justices Kagan and Breyer, to rule in favor of the Church.
The arguments made in the oral argument against the doctrine of unconstitutional condition in this case are weak. One was that the program at issue here was competitive rather than universal.
Previously Justice Sonia Sotomayor has allowed her jurisprudence of empathy to distort clear constitutional and statutory text. This week this jurisprudence has caused her to exceed the bounds of proper procedure.
Speaking at Northwestern University Law School this semester, Justice Elena Kagan may have revealed more than she intended. Amidst her entertaining and witty remarks, she described two very different kinds of discussions that take place at the conferences where the justices decide cases. In shorter conferences, the justices, in order of seniority, with the Chief going first, state their votes with brief statements of reasons. Justice Kagan observed that shorter conferences tend to be the high profile cases that appear on the front page of the newspaper. She surmised that further debate in these cases would likely make her colleagues irritated with those of opposing views.
She then described longer conferences, where the justices after stating their positions—sometimes tentative ones– entertain more general deliberations, trying to figure out exactly what the right answer should be. They then focus on and often resolve thorny legal questions. Justice Kagan said that during her time on the Court one of the longest conferences revolved around an obscure jurisdictional issue of the kind that would draw no public attention.
Justice Kagan’s remarks are consistent with my view that we have not one but two Supreme Courts. One is a political court, in which the justices play the aristocratic element in a mixed political regime. Today our aristocratic element consists not of landed nobles but the cognitive elite well represented in judiciary by those who graduated from the nation’s best law schools.
Most readers of this blog will already know the speech codes—viz. sex codes—that the Department of Education seeks to impose on universities, under the guise of preventing sexual harassment. Eugene Volokh has a lucid summary and the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education a tedious tongue-lashing about what constitutes sexual harassment. The acts that keep Diversity Offices at full employment can range from telling a dirty joke to reading Anna Karenina. Similar directives go back into previous administrations, so, once again, the battle is not about a personality (even a powerful one such as Obama) but about the Administrative State.
It turns out, as Volokh notes, that sexual harassment at an institution of higher education might be found in any public or private discussion of sex, love, or eroticism. This means that the speech constituting the core purpose of higher education would have to be scrutinized by Washington bureaucrats. This is dangerous professionally—terrify your favorite male professor by sending him a DVD of David Mamet’s Oleanna, about a supposed episode of sexual harassment. And, more important, the vague codes enforce a debilitating self-censorship on professors and students that simultaneously increases the blandness and the freakishness of higher education.