Bork Reconsidered, Part II

3601327017_cf29db46c31In an earlier post, I compared the nominations of Judge Sonia Sotomayor and Judge Robert Bork in order to make some observations about the role of stare decisis and its relationship to judicial activism.  My argument was that a respect for the wisdom of past practice and a preference for incremental change will allow Judge Sotomayor to avoid being tagged as a radical jurist unworthy of confirmation.  In contrast, Judge Bork had a record that left him vulnerable to such a charge (even if unwarranted).  Also worthy of mention here is Professor David Papke’s earlier recollection of Professor Bork in the classroom.

In the discussion that follows, I will continue to use the Sotomayor/ Bork comparison in order to draw out the manner in which the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment threatens to undermine the very philosophy of constitutional interpretation that is most closely associated with Judge Bork.

Opponents of the Sotomayor nomination have seized on the Second Amendment as an issue with which to attack her.  Portraying her as an opponent of the constitutional right to own firearms is a strategy that will certainly succeed in energizing the base of the Republican Party.  If she rises to the bait during her confirmation hearings, and expresses any skepticism over the correctness of the District of Columbia v. Heller case – striking down the DC handgun ban– then efforts to paint her as a liberal jurist who is out of the mainstream might gain some traction with the public.

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Justice Roberts Has A Little List

the_mikado1The Supreme Court ruled yesterday in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company that the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution is violated by the refusal of a judge to recuse herself when the disproportionate campaign contributions of a litigant on behalf of that judge create a serious, objective risk of actual bias. Rick Esenberg has posted on some of the issues raised by the majority opinion here. For me, the most interesting part of the case was actually the dissent by Justice John Roberts. In it, Justice Roberts objects to the uncertainty that federal judges will encounter as they attempt to apply this constitutional right in future cases with disparate fact patterns. In a bit of theatricality worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan, the Chief Justice’s dissent presents a list of 40 questions that the majority opinion leaves unanswered.

The Chief Justice makes a rather stark assertion: “The Court’s inability to formulate a ‘judicially discernible and manageable standard’ strongly counsels against the recognition of a novel constitutional right.” He cites to Veith v. Jubelirer in support of this statement, which of course held no such thing. In fact, as a plurality opinion devoted to the issue of what constitutes a “political question,” the Veith case is a fairly slender reed upon which to rest such a sweeping proposition.

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Empathy and Catholic Legal Theory

Over at Mirror of Justice, Rob Vischer of St. Thomas wonders about the role of empathy in Catholic legal theory. After referring to Orin Kerr’s summation of different responses to legal ambiguity, Rob asks:

Wasn’t Brown v. Board of Education driven by empathy, not just the weighing of legal merits?  How about Meyer and Pierce?  Is the recognition that “the child is not the mere creature of the state” as a rationale for a judicial decision driven solely by legal merit, or something else?  And what about abortion?  There are lots of Supreme Court decisions that reflect weak constitutional interpretation, but calls for the Court to overturn Roe v. Wade are not just about remedying bad interpretation, are they?  Aren’t we also asking judges to empathize with the unborn in recognizing the need to overturn Roe?

Putting aside Roe (which I think is all about weak constitutional interpretation), Rob’s point goes to the idea that I was trying to explore yesterday about cabined empathy. It can be, to borrow Ed Fallone’s phrase again, useful in reasoning from undisputed (or at least a judge’s accepted) first principles. It isn’t that empathy creates an obligation of equal protection, but it does help us see the flaw in Justice Henry Billings Brown’s (who remembers that name?) assertion in Plessy that the badge of inferiority arising from Jim Crow exists “solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” 

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