Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently noted that she sometimes refrained from dissenting in the cases she regarded as less important like tax disputes and saved her dissents for the big ones like those on gender equality. Unlike some of her other obviously injudicious remarks, her opinion on this matter may be widely shared among judges. When I asked a friend who had become a federal appellate judge what most surprised him, he said it was norm among his colleagues to suppress written dissent in all but important cases. He was troubled by the practice but felt pressure to conform.
My friend is right to feel uneasy. It is a bad practice. First, it smacks of judicial hubris. It is often difficult to be sure how important a decision will be in the long run.. The fabric of the law is complex. For instance, the development of minor exceptions to a doctrine can eventually lead to pressure for its overthrow. Even cases that are minor to Supreme Court justices can have large ripple effects.
This Sunday, in the print edition of the New York Times Magazine, Garry Wills joined Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in contending that the Declaration of Independence favors interpreting our Constitution in light of foreign law. They note that the Declaration is prompted by a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” The colonists are moved by that respect to recount publicly the causes of their need for separation from Britain. Wills and Ginsburg appear to believe the same decent respect should encourage Americans, including our justices, to resort to foreign law to help construe our Constitution.
But using this sonorous phrase of the Declaration as a support for resorting to foreign or international law has defects that are obvious from the text and context of the great document itself. First, the Declaration makes clear that this “decent respect” requires us to explain our own views to the world, not accept the views of others.
Second, the Signers appealed to a combination of natural law and their own historic rights as justification for their break with the mother country. They did not refer to foreign and international law as support for their position. For good reason. The Enlightenment age in which Declaration was written may have been cosmopolitan, as Wills argues. But the sovereign law in the monarchies of Europe and in despotisms elsewhere were not noticeably solicitous of the rights, like representation and freedom from unreasonable searches, that the Framers thought their birthright.
Many people are concerned about Donald Trump’s commitment to the rule of law, a concern I share. But the other choice in this election is a Progressive one, and Progressivism by its nature lacks that commitment. Moreover, its history shows that it permanently damages the constitutional foundations of the United States. And the United States suffers from the fevers of progressivism more than any time since the 1960s. Thus, this election pits a candidate lawless by virtue of temperament against one lawless by virtue of ideology and emboldened by the spirit of the times. The rule of law is under threat, whoever wins.
Progressivism has proved a greater long-term danger than any single individual, because it is born in part out of systematic rather than personal hostility to the Constitution. Federalism and separation of powers are obstacles to the social engineering at the heart of progressivism, and thus progressivism has tried to eviscerate these restraints. Packed with FDR appointees in the 1930s, the Supreme Court gutted the enumerated powers. The administrative state has eroded the separation of powers, making the executive ever more powerful in domestic affairs. The theory used to justify these departures from the original constitution, living constitutionalism, is itself a threat to the rule of law, because it devalues the formal rules laid down by the Constitution.
And today we see all across a society a renewed progressive disdain for the rule of law.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now 83 years old. One often hears it said that she ought to step down. By now, Ginsburg has a set response to this criticism: She says that she is not the only old justice. She notes that Kennedy is about to turn 80 and Breyer is going to turn 78.
I have no idea whether Ginsburg is too old to perform her duties. What I do know is that Ginsburg appears increasingly prone to making politically inappropriate statements.
In an interview last week, Ginsburg made several improper statements. First, Ginsburg gave what the New York Times describe as “an unequivocal endorsement of Judge Garland,” who President Obama had nominated for the Court but the Senate has refused to consider. It is normally considered improper for a Supreme Court justice to comment on a politically charged issue of this type.
In addition, Ginsburg also asserted that the Senate had an obligation to assess Judge Garland’s qualifications, stating “that’s their job” and “there’s nothing in the Constitution that says the president stops being president in his last year.” Not only do I regard this comment as mistaken, it is once again inappropriate. The President remains the President, of course. The Senate has simply decided not to act on this nominee. Ginsburg’s argument reads like Democratic Party talking points.
Second, Ginsburg made critical comments about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. She stated “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president.” She also suggested that if Trump were elected, it would be time to move to New Zealand.
Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, has been touted as a centrist on the court of appeals. Whatever reasons there are to confirm him, that should not be one of them.
First, the centrism of a lower court judge is likely an illusion. He is bound by Supreme Court precedent and thus has limited ability to change the status quo. Thus, he tends to be centrist simply by virtue of his position. To be sure, there are some lawless circuit judges, who do not make a good faith effort to follow Supreme Court precedent, but they are relatively few. And none of these could be serious candidates for the Supreme Court, where a record of reversal and obvious disobedience would be seized on by the opposition.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was pretty faithful in applying precedents when she, like Garland, was on the D.C. circuit. And she too was praised as centrist. But on the Supreme Court she has led the left on the Court. Some of her rulings and views are in fact outlandish, if not Orwellian.
Honorary degrees are the highest symbol of recognition that universities can bestow. And the Ivy League retains the greatest reputation for excellence in American higher education. Thus, it is of more than a little interest that these institutions find excellence overwhelmingly in justices on the left of the judiciary.
Of the fourteen honorary degrees bestowed by Ivy League institutions to living Supreme Court justices twelve went to those on the left of the Court. Justice Ginsburg is the champ: she has an honorary degree from every Ivy League university except Cornell and Cornell does not award honorary degrees. And she is by some political science measures the farthest to the left on the Court. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has two such degrees (Princeton, Yale) and Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens and David Souter have one each (Penn, Princeton, and Harvard respectively). While I am not knowledgeable about all foreign judges, the two I did recognize from the Ivy lists, getting two honorary degrees each, were Albie Sachs of South Africa and Aharon Barak of Israel—two of the most famous left-leaning jurists from abroad. Indeed, some of Barak’s opinions make those of William O. Douglas seem modest and lawful.
Against all this celebration of left-liberalism, Brown and Yale did give honorary degrees to Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing justice of her day and a moderate conservative. But no Ivy League University has ever awarded such a degree to anyone sitting now on the right of the Court. What makes this performance even more obviously ideologically driven is that these academic institutions have neglected the one who has had the most academic influence—Antonin Scalia.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew a sharp contrast between for-profit and religious organizations. Whereas for-profits are “organized to do business in the commercial world,” religious organizations, she said, serve citizens as believers. The strict separation between commerce and other spheres of civic life is also reflected in the common complaint that the Supreme Court in Citizens United wrongly reached out to extend First Amendment protection to for-profit corporations as well as the non-profit corporation actually at issue in the case.
The attempt to deprive for-profit enterprises of the rights to participate in political and civic life is characteristic of modern left-liberalism, which seems to believe that for-profit activity is inherently less civic-minded than not-for-profit endeavors. The distinction is not altogether new. For centuries nobles disdained those in trade and asserted that merchants should have fewer rights than they did. This stance is yet another instance where social democrats want to create a society based on status distinctions rather than on the exercise of equal legal rights.
But the distinction is not a sound one.