When Pre­si­dent Joe Bi­den cam­paig­ned for of­fi­ce, and then re­cent­ly when Jus­ti­ce Step­hen Brey­er an­noun­ced his im­pen­ding re­ti­re­ment, Bi­den sta­ted and then rei­te­ra­ted that he would choo­se an Af­ri­can Ame­ri­can wo­man for the U.S. Sup­re­me Court. His right, or tech­ni­cal­ly his pri­vi­le­ge, to choo­se who he wants is re­la­ti­ve­ly wit­hout qu­es­ti­on, and the Cons­ti­tu­ti­on it­self pro­vi­des no cri­te­ria what­so­e­ver as to who should be cho­sen. Neit­her age, nor gen­der, nor even ci­ti­zens­hip or being a mem­ber of the bar or ha­ving had le­gal trai­ning are re­qui­red. Ne­vert­he­less, there seems to be some une­a­se in li­mi­ting the field to one group of in­di­vi­du­als to the exc­lu­si­on of ot­hers, ma­king the choi­ce ba­sed on cri­te­ria that do not seem ob­vi­ous­ly to count as qu­a­li­fi­ca­ti­ons in and of them­sel­ves, to li­mit the field to the ob­vi­ous det­ri­ment of any num­ber of in­di­vi­du­als who may be high­ly qu­a­li­fied but may be neit­her fe­ma­le or nor Af­ri­can Ame­ri­can. An as­pi­ra­ti­o­nal qu­a­li­ty of fair­ness that per­me­a­tes Ame­ri­can so­cie­ty seems to be chal­len­ged by exc­lu­ding one group, let alo­ne most pe­op­le, from con­si­de­ra­ti­on. We then might think that such a li­mi­ta­ti­on is wrong and imp­ro­per, not in the hig­hest tra­di­ti­ons of Ame­ri­can ju­risp­ru­den­ce or Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal as­pi­ra­ti­ons. But is that right?

Nar­ro­wing choi­ce in the field of ju­di­ci­al no­mi­nees is hard­ly a re­cent in­no­va­ti­on. In this con­text, po­li­ti­cal par­ty al­wa­ys counts more than anyt­hing el­se, and if not open­ly sta­ted, is too ob­vi­ous to need ut­te­ring aloud. For most of its his­to­ry, ge­og­rap­hi­cal dist­ri­bu­ti­on and ba­lan­ce was no less overt and ob­vi­ous. If a va­can­cy oc­cur­red by the re­ti­re­ment or de­ath of a wes­ter­ner or a New Eng­lan­der or a sout­her­ner, the rep­la­ce­ment was more or less de­ter­mi­ned, not al­wa­ys 100%, and not al­wa­ys wit­hout ex­cep­ti­on, but ge­ne­ral­ly and overw­hel­ming­ly, by an in­di­vi­du­al from the same part of the count­ry as the re­ti­ring or dying jus­ti­ce. Con­si­der Wil­li­am Cus­hing, an ori­gi­nal jus­ti­ce ap­poin­ted by Ge­or­ge Was­hing­ton, the last Ame­ri­can jud­ge to wear the Bri­tish wig – the pe­ru­ke – on the bench. He was a New Eng­lan­der from Mas­sac­hu­set­ts, as was his suc­ces­sor, Wil­li­am Story from Con­nec­ti­cut, and his suc­ces­sor Levi Wood­bu­ry of New Hamps­hi­re, fol­lo­wed in that same seat by Ben­ja­min Cur­tis of Mas­sac­hu­set­ts, Nat­han Clif­ford of Mai­ne, Ho­ra­ce Gray of Mas­sac­hu­set­ts and the au­gust Oli­ver Wen­dell Hol­mes, Jr., again of Mas­sac­hu­set­ts. Se­ven straight jus­ti­ces from the same small area of the count­ry, all Pro­tes­tant, white ma­les as well. 

Mo­re­o­ver, in the 20th cen­tu­ry, or at le­ast for much of it, there was a Je­wish seat and a Cat­ho­lic seat. In 1932, Ben­ja­min Car­do­zo was ap­poin­ted by Pre­si­dent Hoo­ver as a Je­wish mem­ber of the Sup­re­me Court. He was suc­cee­ded in 1939 by Fe­lix Frank­fur­ter, who in turn was suc­cee­ded by Art­hur Gold­berg in 1965, who was then suc­cee­ded in 1969 by Abe For­tas, all Jews. In 1922, Pre­si­dent Har­ding ap­poin­ted Pier­ce But­ler to be the on­ly Cat­ho­lic on the Sup­re­me Court. He was suc­cee­ded in 1940 by the Cat­ho­lic for­mer Mic­hi­gan go­ver­nor, Wil­li­am Murp­hy. The first Af­ri­can Ame­ri­can jus­ti­ce, Thur­good Mars­hall, ap­poin­ted by Pre­si­dent John­son in 1967, was suc­cee­ded by Cla­ren­ce Tho­mas, then on­ly the se­cond Af­ri­can Ame­ri­can mem­ber of the high court. None of this his­to­ry sug­gests that the no­mi­na­ti­on pro­cess was open to all. 

Ro­nald Re­a­gan fa­mous­ly li­mi­ted the field when he was run­ning for of­fi­ce in 1980. He said: “It is time for a wo­man to sit among our hig­hest ju­rists. I will al­so seek out wo­men to ap­point to ot­her fe­de­ral courts to bring about a bet­ter ba­lan­ce on the fe­de­ral bench.” He did exact­ly that with the no­mi­na­ti­on of the first fe­ma­le jus­ti­ce, Sand­ra Day O’Con­ner. In so doing, and in so li­mi­ting, he ap­pe­a­red to re­cei­ve vir­tu­al­ly no cri­ti­cism for exc­lu­ding not on­ly half the po­ten­ti­al po­pu­la­ti­on from the pro­cess, but, at that time, the overw­hel­ming num­ber of la­wy­ers. He cer­tain­ly did not re­cei­ve the kind of cri­ti­cism that, for examp­le, Se­na­tor Ted Cruz le­ve­led against Pre­si­dent Bi­den when he said: “The fact that he’s wil­ling to make a pro­mi­se at the out­set that it must be a Black wo­man – I got­ta [sic] say, that’s of­fen­si­ve. Black wo­men are, what, 6% of the U.S. po­pu­la­ti­on? He’s sa­ying to 94% of Ame­ri­cans: ‘I don’t give a damn about you. You are ine­li­gib­le’”. Would Se­na­tor Cruz have said that about the seat re­ser­ved for New Eng­land jus­ti­ces or for Je­wish ones, or put dif­fe­rent­ly, should we now voi­ce that pro­test?

The qu­es­ti­on, then, is two­fold: is it le­gi­ti­ma­te to li­mit from the po­ten­ti­al pool of no­mi­nees any group, inc­lu­ding, for examp­le pe­op­le from the wrong re­gi­on, the wrong edu­ca­ti­o­nal backg­round, the wrong re­li­gi­on, the wrong gen­der, or the wrong race? We ge­ne­ral­ly do not as­su­me that eli­mi­na­ting pe­op­le with the wrong po­li­ti­cal the­o­ries or ju­risp­ru­den­ti­al exp­la­na­ti­on should be eli­mi­na­ted – ori­gi­na­list vs. strict const­ruc­ti­o­nist vs. evol­ving Cons­ti­tu­ti­o­na­list, ri­go­rous­ly fol­lo­wing pre­ce­dent vs. re­vi­si­ting it, fin­ding re­a­sons for en­han­ced exe­cu­ti­ve po­wer vs. fin­ding on­ly cong­res­si­o­nal sup­re­ma­cy, re­si­ding aut­ho­ri­ty with the in­di­vi­du­al sta­tes vs. see­ing an inc­re­a­sed role for the fe­de­ral go­vern­ment – in lar­ge part be­cau­se there is no sing­le mo­del ag­reed upon as to what counts as a good jud­ge. 

We might con­si­der the qu­es­ti­on more bro­ad­ly. What of cri­tics or cham­pi­on of doct­ri­nes drawn from past de­ci­si­ons, de­ci­si­ons that have de­ter­mi­ned the ran­ge and re­ach and ide­o­lo­gy of the Sup­re­me Court? We nor­mal­ly be­lie­ve that cri­tics or ad­vo­ca­tes of such ca­ses – from Mar­bu­ry v. Ma­di­son (which al­lo­wed the court to re­view the cons­ti­tu­ti­o­na­li­ty of exe­cu­ti­ve and cong­res­si­o­nal ac­ti­on), to the Dred Scott case (which al­lo­wed the court to bar pro­tec­ti­ons of black ci­ti­zens and for­mer sla­ves), to Loch­ner v. N.Y. (where the court struck down workp­la­ce sa­fe­ty rest­ric­ti­ons), to Brown v. Bd. of Edu­ca­ti­on (which eli­mi­na­ted for­mal seg­re­ga­ti­on in the South), to Roe v. Wade (which pro­tec­ted a wo­man’s right to choo­se), to Buck­ley v. Va­leo and Dist. of Co­lum­bia v. Hel­ler (which res­pec­ti­ve­ly struck down le­gis­la­ti­ve at­tempts to cont­rol cam­paign spen­ding and gun vi­o­len­ce) – in pro­vi­ding their views give le­gi­ti­ma­te re­a­sons to the Pre­si­dent or Se­na­tors to as­sess who should be cho­sen. That is, an ot­her­wi­se qu­a­li­fied la­wy­er or jud­ge who sug­gests that a case or doct­ri­ne might need to be re­vi­si­ted, by that very sug­ges­ti­on, can be eli­mi­na­ted from con­si­de­ra­ti­on, and with that eli­mi­na­ti­on pas­sing wit­hout re­mark. We think Pre­si­dents should be free, wit­hin re­a­son, to pick jud­ges whose po­li­ti­cal the­o­ry or ju­di­ci­al ide­o­lo­gy com­ports with theirs. Why should we al­low that, but not al­low rest­ric­ti­ons which seem on­ly in­di­rect­ly to touch upon me­rit, such as de­mog­rap­hics or ge­og­rap­hy?

These are lar­ge qu­es­ti­ons, ones that might re­qui­re not on­ly furt­her thought but hund­reds of pa­ges of ana­ly­sis, cle­ar­ly not ap­p­rop­ri­a­te here. But we might say se­ve­ral things. First, a great deal of po­li­ti­cal choi­ce is mo­ral­ly al­lo­wab­le, if not al­wa­ys mo­ral­ly su­pe­ri­or. That is, we might think that it is re­a­so­nab­le to al­low rest­ric­ti­ons on free­dom in fa­vor of sa­fe­ty or we might think just the op­po­si­te, wit­hout thin­king that any­o­ne is mo­ral­ly per­ni­ci­ous but might simp­ly have got­ten the mo­ral equ­a­ti­on wrong. Gi­ven that, it is ea­sy to see why the idea of being more or less li­be­ral about pre­ce­dents or re­gi­o­na­lism or the role of the state ver­sus the fe­de­ral go­vern­ment is a mat­ter of ge­ne­ral elec­to­ral po­li­tics with the win­ner, that is the hol­der of the pre­si­den­cy get­ting to choo­se among le­gi­ti­ma­te if dif­fe­rent po­si­ti­ons. There may, ho­we­ver, be de­ci­si­ons, as for ins­tan­ce with the Dred Scott or Ko­re­mat­su de­ci­si­ons, that in­vol­ve not on­ly dif­fe­ren­ces that are mo­ral­ly al­lo­wab­le, but ones that pre­sent is­su­es of fun­da­men­tal qu­a­li­fi­ca­ti­on or dis­qu­a­li­fi­ca­ti­on for a no­mi­nee. Es­sen­ti­al­ly, that is what hap­pe­ned with the fai­led no­mi­na­ti­on of Ro­bert Bork. When all the dust set­t­led, the fact that Bork voi­ced qu­es­ti­ons about the vi­a­bi­li­ty and cor­rect­ness of Brown vs. Bd. of Edu­ca­ti­on pro­ved a step too far in the count­ry’s qu­est for equ­a­li­ty and jus­ti­ce. 

Se­cond, we might think that ge­og­rap­hi­cal di­ver­si­ty and ra­ci­al di­ver­si­ty are alig­ned. This may seem like a stran­ge con­cept, as being from Mai­ne and being black seem to have not­hing po­li­ti­cal­ly, mo­ral­ly, or in any ot­her re­le­vant way in com­mon. Let us take a step back. Any eli­mi­na­ti­on of in­di­vi­du­als, whet­her ba­sed on ge­og­rap­hy or re­li­gi­on or race or gen­der, can­not be jus­ti­fied if the re­mai­ning pool of those al­lo­wed inc­lu­des those lac­king qu­a­li­fi­ca­ti­ons. That is, we would hard­ly want a prog­ram that ad­van­ces cer­tain in­di­vi­du­als for col­le­ge ad­mis­si­on if those ad­van­ta­ged in­di­vi­du­als – whet­her le­ga­cy, ath­le­tes, of­fsp­ring of the eli­te, mem­bers of the marc­hing band, or mem­bers of a race – would be unab­le to suc­ceed at that col­le­ge. One would ex­pect groups that tra­di­ti­o­nal­ly had not been ad­mit­ted to Ya­le to re­main out if, in fact, Ya­le nor­mal­ly re­qui­red an edu­ca­ti­o­nal ac­hie­ve­ment stan­dard bey­ond what those in­di­vi­du­als could ac­hie­ve. The move from ru­ral po­ver­ty in a com­mu­ni­ty of une­du­ca­ted in­di­vi­du­als to Ya­le is one that might take ge­ne­ra­ti­ons. That might be un­fair, as na­ti­ve in­tel­li­gen­ce (wha­te­ver that me­ans), may well re­si­de in the per­son of a poor, ru­ral, il­le­gi­ti­ma­te child (con­si­der Bill Clin­ton), but, in that way, the world could be con­si­de­red un­fair. Ho­we­ver, if there are more than enough in­di­vi­du­als who qu­a­li­fy, both from va­ri­ous if ar­bit­ra­ry groups (le­ga­cy, ath­le­tes, nee­ded mem­bers of the marc­hing band), then it hard­ly seems ine­qui­tab­le or un­fair in any way, in and of it­self, to ba­lan­ce a col­le­ge that wants a comp­lex, di­ver­se, cos­mo­po­li­tan, and in­te­res­ting stu­dent body by de­li­be­ra­ting in its se­lec­ti­on the inc­lu­si­on of disc­re­te groups. One could do ot­her­wi­se, but it is hard­ly wrong to choo­se that met­hod. 

One ini­ti­al qu­es­ti­on is, even if the num­ber that Ted Cruz put for­ward of on­ly loo­king to 6% of the po­pu­la­ti­on is true, does that 6% of in­di­vi­du­als inc­lu­de mem­bers who are well-qu­a­li­fied to be on the Sup­re­me Court? The ans­wer is cle­ar­ly yes. Then the qu­es­ti­on would be whet­her it mat­ters whet­her one on­ly looks at the 6%. As it is, one ge­ne­ral­ly on­ly con­si­ders those al­re­a­dy sit­ting on a lo­wer court (and no thought­ful ob­ser­ver can think that that com­ports with most or even a sig­ni­fi­cant frac­ti­on of the most qu­a­li­fied in­di­vi­du­als to ser­ve on the Sup­re­me Court). Wor­se are spe­ci­fic con­si­de­ra­ti­ons. Usu­al­ly now on­ly yo­un­ger in­di­vi­du­als are con­si­de­red, to ser­ve lon­ger, when ex­pe­rien­ce, ma­tu­ri­ty and a more tho­rough re­cord are cle­ar­ly to be pre­fer­red. They must have an eli­te edu­ca­ti­on, usu­al­ly now doub­le Ivy Le­a­gue, li­mi­ting pers­pec­ti­ves to those eight schools (and a few ho­no­ra­ry mem­bers), when most la­wy­ers, inc­lu­ding most of the best la­wy­ers, went el­sew­he­re, be­cau­se of fi­nan­ces, op­por­tu­ni­ties, or just be­cau­se they pre­fer the ne­a­rest state or re­li­gi­ous uni­ver­si­ty. 

In fact, it would be hard to see anyw­he­re el­se in Ame­ri­can life this kind of imp­li­cit bar­rier. Of the 9 jus­ti­ces on the Sup­re­me Court to­day, with 18 com­bi­ned un­derg­ra­du­a­te and law deg­rees, 14 of those deg­rees being from 4 Ivy Le­a­gue schools, with anot­her 3 deg­rees from the ra­ri­fied con­fi­nes of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ox­ford. Mo­re­o­ver, these same jus­ti­ces have si­mi­lar and nar­row­ly drawn life ex­pe­rien­ces in eli­te ins­ti­tu­ti­ons, al­wa­ys ha­ving cler­ked for an ap­pel­la­te (usu­al­ly Sup­re­me Court) jud­ge, then wor­king for the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­ti­ce, and fi­nal­ly being a la­wy­er with a lar­ge cor­po­ra­te law firm ser­ving cor­po­ra­te in­te­rests, all be­fo­re ser­ving as a lo­wer court fe­de­ral jud­ge. Al­most none have had in­di­vi­du­al clients that are not rich, tried any ca­ses or en­coun­te­red a jury them­sel­ves, or have any fa­mi­li­a­ri­ty with the li­feb­lood of the le­gal sys­tem: cri­mi­nal law, ju­ve­ni­le law, di­vor­ce law, pro­ba­te law, the law of ac­ci­dents, con­su­mer law, land­lord and workp­la­ce dis­pu­tes, or the or­di­na­ry mat­ters that Ame­ri­cans care about in the le­gal sys­tem and their dai­ly li­ves.

One might won­der what is being mis­sed when those wit­hout these qu­a­li­fi­ca­ti­ons are exc­lu­ded. Such exc­lu­si­on would have co­ve­red Chief Jus­ti­ce Earl War­ren, a state uni­ver­si­ty gra­du­a­te both in col­le­ge and law school, who aut­ho­red Brown v. Bd. of Edu­ca­ti­on, en­ding of­fi­ci­al seg­re­ga­ti­on and Lo­ving v. Vir­gi­nia, en­ding the pro­hi­bi­ti­on of mar­ri­a­ges bet­ween ra­ces. The pre­sent cri­te­ria would al­so exc­lu­de Jus­ti­ce Ro­bert Jack­son, with his mo­nu­men­tal dis­sent in the Ja­pa­ne­se in­tern­ment case of Ko­re­mat­su and his ser­vi­ce as the Chief Pro­se­cu­tor at the In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Mi­li­ta­ry Tri­bu­nal at Nu­rem­berg. Jack­son not on­ly went to state schools, he fai­led to get his law deg­ree.

One might ar­gue, and with some jus­ti­fi­ca­ti­on, that ge­og­rap­hi­cal di­ver­si­ty is part of the po­li­tics of the Uni­ted Sta­tes in a be­nign way, al­lo­wing groups who live un­der dif­fe­rent cir­cums­tan­ces, ru­ral Io­wa or de­sert Ne­va­da or Man­hat­tan or South Flo­ri­da, to bring those ex­pe­rien­ce of those cir­cums­tan­ces to the court on the one hand, and to get ap­p­ro­val of an of­ten crass cong­ress rep­re­sents those di­ver­se in­te­rests on the ot­her. An exa­mi­na­ti­on of why that jus­ti­fi­ca­ti­on is al­lo­wab­le is one that is mir­ro­red in the se­lec­ti­on of di­ver­si­ty that rests on race, re­li­gi­on and gen­der. Gro­wing up poor in the ru­ral south is very dif­fe­rent than gro­wing up we­alt­hy in a D.C. su­burb. Gro­wing up white, male, and well-off, with the abi­li­ty to pick up an ext­ra deg­ree on the side from Ox­ford, is very dif­fe­rent that the kind of backg­round than most Ame­ri­cans en­joy, or if fe­ma­le, have his­to­ri­cal­ly been al­lo­wed to en­joy. 

Take Thur­good Mars­hall, gro­wing up in a seg­re­ga­ted and im­po­ve­ris­hed Black ghet­to of Bal­ti­mo­re with a fat­her who was a rail­ro­ad por­ter, and who na­tu­ral­ly un­ders­tood, in a pro­found way life, in a sec­tor of so­cie­ty un­fa­mi­li­ar to his even­tu­al court col­le­a­gu­es; or Wil­li­am O. Doug­las, who grew up des­ti­tu­te in ru­ral Was­hing­ton State, but with a love of wil­der­ness and moun­tai­nous vis­tas. The backg­round of these two led to pi­o­nee­ring opi­ni­ons from Mars­hall in the area of ci­vil rights and the de­ath pe­nal­ty and from Doug­las in his land­mark opi­ni­ons in en­vi­ron­men­tal law, par­ti­cu­lar­ly Sier­ra Club v. Mor­ton. Both were pro­ducts of their ear­ly en­vi­ron­ment. Both ju­rists could have been cho­sen ba­sed on the cri­te­ria of ge­og­rap­hy or de­mog­rap­hics, cri­te­ria that could ac­count for the dis­tan­ce they had to mid­d­le-class Ame­ri­ca, let alo­ne the po­wer eli­te. What if Pre­si­dent Roo­se­velt (for Doug­las) or Pre­si­dent John­son (for Mars­hall) an­noun­ced du­ring their Pre­si­den­ti­al cam­paigns that they would ap­point a mem­ber of the Sup­re­me Court who grew up wit­hout mo­ney or pros­pects, in an en­vi­ron­ment at the bot­tom of Ame­ri­ca’s so­ci­al and eco­no­mic de­mog­rap­hics, from fa­mi­lies lar­ge­ly une­du­ca­ted, and who had views far out­si­de the norms of comp­la­cent, mid­d­le-class Ame­ri­ca? Should they have whis­pe­red it ins­te­ad?

The Sup­re­me Court and the na­ti­on are bet­ter ser­ved with di­ver­se voi­ces and dis­tinct pers­pec­ti­ves, with dif­fe­rent ways of thin­king about prob­lems, with ad­di­ti­o­nal in­sights that might be found in Ya­ki­ma, Was­hing­ton with Doug­las or even Vien­na, Aust­ria (for Frank­fur­ter). That might be ob­vi­ous, but it seems that there is a la­tent nar­ra­ti­ve that there is on­ly one or ma­y­be two (more con­ser­va­ti­ve or more li­be­ral) sets of qu­a­li­fi­ca­ti­ons for Sup­re­me Court mem­bers­hip. Me­anw­hi­le, so goes the nar­ra­ti­ve, va­ri­ous ot­her ide­as drawn from life ex­pe­rien­ces to cont­ras­ting backg­rounds to ra­ci­al and re­li­gi­ous and gen­der and ge­og­rap­hi­cal di­ver­si­ty count for not­hing. This is per­haps such non­sen­se that it needs, at le­ast at this point, to be tre­a­ted no furt­her. There is an equ­al­ly fal­la­ci­ous, alt­hough more per­ni­ci­ous view, one that there are simp­ly not enough qu­a­li­fied po­ten­ti­al Sup­re­me Court jus­ti­ces among the Af­ri­can Ame­ri­can fe­ma­le le­gal com­mu­ni­ty to no­mi­na­te one. Gi­ven the pre­sent can­di­da­tes who seem to be in con­ten­ti­on – U.S. Court of Ap­pe­als Jud­ge Ke­tan­ji Brown Jack­son, Ca­li­for­nia Sup­re­me Court Jud­ge Le­o­no­ra Kru­ger, and U.S. Dist­rict Court Jud­ge J. Mic­hel­le Childs – that con­ten­ti­on of no com­pe­tent can­di­da­tes, al­re­a­dy mo­ral­ly per­ni­ci­ous, is al­so seen as fac­tu­al­ly ri­di­cu­lous. 

In a less anec­do­tal way, ba­sed on the ABA sta­tis­tics, there are pro­bab­ly about 22-25,000 Af­ri­can Ame­ri­can fe­ma­le la­wy­ers in the Uni­ted Sta­tes. To put that in­to pers­pec­ti­ve, it was not un­til 1850 that that num­ber of la­wy­ers, ap­p­ro­xi­ma­te­ly 24,000, prac­ti­ced in the en­ti­re Uni­ted Sta­tes. By that time, 31 jus­ti­ces al­re­a­dy been ap­poin­ted to the U.S. Sup­re­me Court. Gi­ven mean high com­pe­ten­cy with an iden­ti­cal samp­le size, there seem to be no lack of can­di­da­tes avai­lab­le. In fact, 2 of the 6 or 7 fi­nest Sup­re­me Court Jus­ti­ces who ever ser­ved, per­haps the 2 very best, had al­re­a­dy been cho­sen by that time: Chief Jus­ti­ce John Mars­hall, who sha­ped the ba­sic fab­ric of the Sup­re­me Court and fe­de­ral ju­risp­ru­den­ce ge­ne­ral­ly (but at­ten­ded no law school); and a dis­si­dent cong­res­s­man too troub­le­so­me to be left in the Hou­se to cri­ti­ci­ze Pre­si­dent Ma­di­son ele­va­ted to the Sup­re­me Court by that same Pre­si­dent Ma­di­son. That Jus­ti­ce, Jo­seph Story, one of 18 child­ren (per­haps a ca­te­go­ry of ex­pe­rien­ce that be­ars rep­re­sen­ta­ti­on at the tab­le) was a de­di­ca­ted abo­li­ti­o­nist who lo­ca­ted the ul­ti­ma­te aut­ho­ri­ty, not with the sta­tes or the fe­de­ral go­vern­ment, but with the pe­op­le. 

Choo­sing, then, ba­sed on par­ti­cu­la­ri­zed cri­te­ria, at le­ast cri­te­ria that ra­ti­o­nal­ly ref­lect the in­te­rests of a lar­ge and comp­lex so­cie­ty, that is, cri­te­ria of gen­der and race, seems not on­ly unex­cep­ti­o­nal, but po­si­ti­ve­ly be­ne­fi­ci­al. What, then, about the se­con­da­ry qu­es­ti­on, that is, sa­ying what is ob­vi­ous and be­ne­fi­ci­al out loud? 

The prob­lem here is one of the sen­si­bi­li­ties sur­roun­ding ba­sic equ­a­li­ty, that is, where equ­a­li­ty is cen­te­red on the in­di­vi­du­al rat­her than a group. We think eve­ry sing­le per­son should en­joy the right to equ­al op­por­tu­ni­ty to cer­tain ac­ti­ons, speech, op­por­tu­ni­ties, ent­ry, emp­lo­y­ment, mem­bers­hip, ser­vi­ces, hou­sing, and just about eve­ryt­hing el­se ba­sed on their in­di­vi­du­al qu­a­li­ties, not on their mem­bers­hip in a group. Cer­tain­ly, no one should be dis­qu­a­li­fied be­cau­se of their mem­bers­hip in a ra­ci­al or eth­nic or re­li­gi­ous or gen­de­red group. We ne­ver want to think of some op­por­tu­ni­ty as one that says that, for any mem­ber of group X, group X mem­bers need not bot­her to ap­p­ly. 

This is to some ex­tent the prob­lem that lies at the he­art of af­fir­ma­ti­ve ac­ti­on. Even when mem­bers­hip is rest­ric­ted, on­ly those pre­vi­ous­ly di­sad­van­ta­ged need ap­p­lies. We think of such rest­ric­ti­ons as odi­ous, as im­per­mis­sib­le, as against the fun­da­men­tal no­ti­ons of equ­a­li­ty and equ­al op­por­tu­ni­ty. Ho­we­ver, to a cer­tain ex­tent, some of the af­fir­ma­ti­ve ac­ti­on prog­rams might ap­pe­ar to have a gre­a­ter jus­ti­fi­ca­ti­on than such a be­ne­fit in fa­vor of a po­ten­ti­al Sup­re­me Court ap­point­ment. For examp­le, when there has been wi­desp­re­ad disc­ri­mi­na­ti­on against cer­tain mi­no­ri­ties for lar­ge oc­cu­pa­ti­o­nal ent­ry, from the plum­bers and elect­ri­cal tra­des to po­li­ce and fire de­part­ments, to hou­sing in cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties, we might think that a make-up foul is in or­der. That is, mi­no­ri­ties are not gi­ven an ad­van­ta­ge for some un­war­ran­ted re­a­son. Rat­her, the prog­ram exists to cor­rect past di­sad­van­ta­ges, when mem­bers­hip in a cer­tain group me­ant that one star­ted not at the star­ting line, but at se­ve­ral yards be­hind it. Race is not used as an imp­ro­per mar­ker for pre­sent disc­ri­mi­na­ti­on. Rat­her, if it had been imp­ro­per­ly used as an il­le­gi­ti­ma­te mar­ker for disc­ri­mi­na­ti­on in the past, it can now be bor­ro­wed as a con­cept to cor­rect that disc­ri­mi­na­ti­on. Quo­tas might then be a proxy for re­me­dying past ine­qu­a­li­ty, alt­hough they car­ry a high price, as exp­li­cit dif­fe­ren­ti­al tre­at­ment and the skep­ti­cism that its be­ne­fi­ci­a­ries do not en­ti­re­ly de­ser­ve the ent­ry, they re­cei­ved le­a­ve a lin­ge­ring bad tas­te and re­sent­ment. Is that what we have here with Pre­si­dent Bi­den’s de­ci­si­on? 

Cle­ar­ly, no. There is no right by any in­di­vi­du­al to that ap­point­ment. That is, there are no ag­g­rie­ved in­di­vi­du­als who, but for some prog­ram or po­li­cy or slant or take on ju­risp­ru­den­ti­al po­si­ti­ons would ot­her­wi­se have re­cei­ved the right. There are far too many qu­a­li­fied in­di­vi­du­als for the Sup­re­me Court, and it is re­la­ti­ve­ly clear that many Sup­re­me Court jus­ti­ces are not even drawn from that qu­a­li­fied group of many in­di­vi­du­als but are ins­te­ad cho­sen des­pi­te being on­ly mar­gi­nal­ly qu­a­li­fied or al­to­get­her un­fit. Thus, if the pro­cess of choo­sing is ske­wed, there is no one to comp­lain about it. There are no spe­ci­fic vic­tims with a claim. In that way, it is qui­te dis­si­mi­lar from cer­tain of the af­fir­ma­ti­ve ac­ti­on claims. There, so­me­o­ne might ar­gue that, but for an af­fir­ma­ti­ve ac­ti­on prog­ram, they would have ot­her­wi­se been pro­mo­ted as a fi­re­figh­ter or ad­mit­ted to the lo­cal state uni­ver­si­ty. A real po­ten­ti­al vic­tim exists. When the for­mer Chief Jus­ti­ce of the Mas­sac­hu­set­ts Sup­re­me Ju­di­ci­al Court, Ho­ra­ce Gray, re­ti­red from the U.S. Sup­re­me Court, Pre­si­dent The­o­do­re Roo­se­velt ba­si­cal­ly sought Gray‘s suc­ces­sor on the same Mas­sac­hu­set­ts Sup­re­me Ju­di­ci­al Court, Oli­ver Wen­dell Hol­mes, Jr., to suc­ceed Gray to oc­cu­py the Mas­sac­hu­set­ts seat on the U.S. Sup­re­me Court. It is im­pos­sib­le to ar­gue that Hol­mes was a bad choi­ce, eit­her at the time or throug­hout his te­nu­re. (That is not to deny that Hol­mes aut­ho­red the 8-1 ma­jo­ri­ty opi­ni­on for the court in Buck v. Bell, a pro-eu­ge­nics de­ci­si­on, at on­ce in­de­fen­sib­le and among the worst in the court’s his­to­ry). No one exis­ted that could say that, but for Hol­mes, the seat would have been theirs. 

Sa­ying all this out loud, be­fo­re those many whom it will in­cen­se, is a po­li­ti­cal con­si­de­ra­ti­on. Does it make more pe­op­le jeer than cheer, or le­a­ve too many in­dif­fe­rent or al­to­get­her ig­no­rant? What is true is that in so doing, Pre­si­dent Bi­den did not­hing at od­ds with what has al­wa­ys been done and cer­tain­ly did not­hing wrong. What he did do was to try to cor­rect a stun­ning in­jus­ti­ce, one that ig­no­red the qu­a­li­ties, au­to­no­my, view­point, wis­dom, in­sight and hu­ma­ni­ty of black wo­men, one that is part of an in­jus­ti­ce cen­tu­ries old. In so doing, Pre­si­dent Bi­den has at­temp­ted to see these Af­ri­can Ame­ri­can wo­men as de­ser­ving to be and to be­long on the Sup­re­me Court bench. Un­til that hap­pens, the out­ra­ge re­mains un­cor­rec­ted.*
(Ar­tic­les con­ti­nu­es be­low the pic­tu­re)

Supreme Court columns with American flag and US Capitol.

Supreme Court columns with American flag and US Capitol.


**Sin­ce this ar­tic­le first ap­pe­a­red (12.2.2022), Pre­si­dent Bi­den no­mi­na­ted the ap­pel­la­te court jud­ge, Ke­tan­ji Brown Jack­son, for the po­si­ti­on of Sup­re­me Court Jus­ti­ce. Jud­ge Jack­son, on pa­per, in her de­me­a­nor and by re­pu­ta­ti­on, is an ex­cep­ti­o­nal­ly ac­comp­lis­hed la­wy­er and jud­ge, with a backg­round that inc­lu­des a dis­tin­guis­hed edu­ca­ti­on, a Sup­re­me Court clerks­hip, work for an eli­te law firm, and ser­vi­ce on the fe­de­ral bench. She has no ob­vi­ous or even subt­le marks against her. Ne­vert­he­less, the Se­na­te con­fir­ma­ti­on vote, lar­ge­ly along par­ti­san li­nes ap­p­ro­ving her, was 53 to 47. It ought to be seen as a shoc­king re­sult if, in fact, the vote was to be anyt­hing ot­her than on the me­rits or has anyt­hing to do with fin­ding an eru­di­te and pru­dent ad­ju­di­ca­tor of le­gal is­su­es.

Of cour­se, the vote had lit­t­le to do with eit­her. Jud­ge Jack­son was sub­ject to long and hos­ti­le ha­ran­gu­es by par­ti­san Se­na­tors on a se­ries of is­su­es ha­ving not­hing to do with her role on the Sup­re­me Court – from cri­ti­cal race the­o­ry (a phan­tom po­si­ti­on that has morp­hed simp­ly in­to hos­ti­li­ty to anyt­hing that ina­de­qu­a­te­ly ce­leb­ra­tes a glos­sy view of Ame­ri­can his­to­ry and Ame­ri­can ex­cep­ti­o­na­lism), to her role rep­re­sen­ting Gu­an­ta­na­mo Bay de­tai­nees in ha­be­as cor­pus pro­cee­dings (ac­ting in the hig­hest spi­rit of Ame­ri­can ju­risp­ru­den­ce of of­fe­ring rep­re­sen­ta­ti­on to the un­po­pu­lar and the ina­de­qu­a­te­ly rep­re­sen­ted, par­ti­cu­lar­ly when ba­sic hu­man rights are at is­sue), to whet­her she be­lie­ved that “ba­bies are ra­cist“.

The Sup­re­me Court has neit­her the pur­se, nor the for­ce, nor the ap­point­ment po­wer. It can­not le­gis­la­te, sol­ve ma­jor so­ci­al prob­lems or even al­wa­ys choo­se its own agen­da, as the ca­ses be­fo­re them are those brought by li­ti­ga­tors and par­ties, not ne­ces­sa­ri­ly those they would have cho­sen in that form (or at all). In that sen­se, they are, to use Ale­xan­der Bic­kel’s fa­mous phrase, “The le­ast dan­ge­rous branch”. What they have had is their in­teg­ri­ty and cre­di­bi­li­ty. He­a­rings like this un­der­mi­ne that di­mi­nis­hing cur­ren­cy, as does the now-le­a­ked, ex­pec­ted over­tur­ning this spring of the de­ca­des-old right to abor­ti­on pre­ce­dent - Roe v. Wade - that pro­tects a preg­nant wo­man’s right to choo­se.

The world is inc­re­a­sing­ly wit­nes­sing an at­tack on the in­de­pen­den­ce and vi­a­bi­li­ty of the ju­di­ci­a­ry, al­re­a­dy comp­le­te in do­zens of count­ries, and now even im­pe­ri­led in pla­ces on­ce thought safe. These surp­ri­sing­ly inc­lu­de Po­land (where the Law and Or­der Par­ty’s so-cal­led ju­di­ci­al re­forms al­low for dis­mis­sal of jud­ges it finds troub­le­so­me, re­forms de­noun­ced by the EU Court of Jus­ti­ce), Swit­zer­land (where the Swiss Pe­op­le’s Par­ty has un­der­mi­ned ju­di­ci­al in­de­pen­den­ce by at­tac­king Jus­ti­ce Yves Don­zal­laz and thre­a­te­ning his re-elec­ti­on for vo­ting against their po­si­ti­on on the re­le­a­se of UBS data to French aut­ho­ri­ties in a tax eva­si­on case) and the Czech Re­pub­lic (where for­mer Prime Mi­nis­ter And­rej Ba­bis thre­a­te­ned the courts du­ring a cont­ro­ver­sy in­vol­ving his per­so­nal as­sets). The he­a­ring for Jud­ge Jack­son, now Jus­ti­ce-to-be Jack­son, has al­re­a­dy gone down that pe­ri­lous road to en­dan­ge­ring that in­de­pen­den­ce and vi­a­bi­li­ty.

*The ar­tic­le was first pub­lis­hed on Palm Be­ach Cen­ter for De­moc­ra­cy & Po­li­cy Re­se­arch web­si­te on 12.2.2022.
***The ar­tic­le was up­da­ted by Mr. Le­vin for SAM Ma­ga­zi­ne 20.5.2022.

Joel Le­vin has been a com­mer­ci­al li­ti­ga­tor and ci­vil rights ad­vo­ca­te, uni­ver­si­ty te­ac­her and aut­hor for 40 ye­ars. His four books inc­lu­de How Jud­ges Re­a­son; Re­vo­lu­ti­ons, Ins­ti­tu­ti­ons, Law; Tort Wars; and The Ra­dov Chro­nic­les. His play, Mar­ra­no Jus­ti­ce, is an his­to­ri­cal drama (with mu­sic) ba­sed on the life of Jus­ti­ce Ben­ja­min Car­do­zo. He re­cei­ved his B.A. and M.A. at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chi­ca­go, his J.D. at Bos­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, and his doc­to­ra­te at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ox­ford. In ad­di­ti­on to foun­ding two high-tech com­pa­nies, he has taught law and phi­lo­sop­hy in Rus­sia, Ca­na­da and a num­ber of Ame­ri­can uni­ver­si­ties, inc­lu­ding, sin­ce 1982, Case Wes­tern Re­ser­ve.