Category: Supreme Court


What Is Empathy? Obama’s Philosophy of Law and the Next Supreme Court Justice

heart1aThere has been a lot of discussion on what President Obama meant when he said he wanted to choose a person who would judge with “empathy” for the U.S. Supreme Court.   When articulating his decision to vote against Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama noted that 95 percent of cases would be relatively straightforward where most justices would agree, but “what matters on the Supreme Court is those 5 precent of cases that are truly difficult.”  Obama further explained:

In those 5 percent of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision. In those circumstances, your decisions about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination in this country or whether a general right of privacy encompasses a more specific right of women to control their reproductive decisions or whether the commerce clause empowers Congress to speak on those issues of broad national concern that may be only tangentially related to what is easily defined as interstate commerce, whether a person who is disabled has the right to be accommodated so they can work alongside those who are nondisabled — in those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr has a very thought-provoking post examining what Obama means by “empathy.”  He writes:

What makes the issue interesting, I think, is that the broad divide over the role of ambiguity in legal decisionmaking is quite real, and yet not often explicitly drawn out. But to those who take the first approach to legal ambiguity, Obama’s view of empathy is just asking for a judge who is lawless. From that perspective, Obama wants a judge who will ignore the law: He wants a judge who might look at the precedents and text, weigh the merits as 70/30, and then vote for the weaker “30” side only because that furthers his political agenda. To those who see legal ambiguity as inviting a careful judicial weighing — indeed, who think that the critical role of a judge is to engage in that careful judicial weighing — emphasizing the need for “empathy” is an invitation to replace law with politics.

Orin’s post reminds me of the debate between H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin.

In The Concept of Law, H.L.A. Hart famously observed:

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Quarterbacks and Justices

In December, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in The New Yorker about how difficult it is for NFL scouts to figure out which college quarterbacks will do well in the pros.  The success rate of these predictions is poor even though there is plenty of information available on draft prospects — game tape, interviews, physical tests, and so on.  Why is this the case?  Partly because the NFL is so much more challenging than college football.  And partly because the skills that make someone a great NFL quarterback are intangible and thus cannot be easily measured.  Few thought that Tom Brady would be a star when he was drafted. Everyone thought Matt Leinhart would be a star when he was drafted. How is that working out?

A similar dynamic applies to evaluating potential Supreme Court Justices.  One thing that I find astonishing about the debate on the candidates for Justice Souter’s seat is how sure some people are that they know who will be a “liberal Scalia” and who will not.  Indeed, much of the media coverage implies that the President’s choice comes down to picking a transformative nominee or “playing it safe” and taking someone who just fills some demographic slot.  This analysis rests on several false assumptions.

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Why Not A Supreme Empiricist?

The 14th Amendment does not (yet?) enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics.

The 14th Amendment does not (yet?) enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics.

In the last post, I suggested that  we shouldn’t be selecting for judicial smartness, at least standing alone.  Here, I’d like to add my two cents to the pile of unsolicited, and likely unused, advice for the Obama vetting team.  The Administration should give some thought to picking a Justice who has prior background working with statistics, data collection, and more general empirical methods.

The footnote 17 debacle is, of course, a recent and salient example of how the Court can go wrong when evaluating empirical work:

“Cornell law professor Jeffrey Rachlinski told the Times that [Ted]  Eisenberg’s study shows “punitive damages are pretty orderly,” yet Souter did not seem to think any studies had proven that point.

The Times asked Eisenberg for his reaction and summarized his response this way: “Professor Eisenberg struggled to stay respectful about the court’s approach to his work, saying he had been flattered to be cited at all. He finally settled on this phrase: ‘I believe the court went seriously astray’ in concluding that his work supported a reduced award.”

Statistical problems before the Court aren’t new — Brown & McClesky both come to mind – but it is likely that the Court will face increasingly sophisticated empirical methods  in briefs over the next generation. Not only has the Supreme Court bar gotten much more sophisticated, but so have the underlying methods in empirical legal scholarship. As methods grow more sophisticated, it becomes harder for judges to play referees, since the errors (if any) in the parties’ positions are more subtle.  A Justice who could be an intelligent consumer of empirical work, rather than a credulous user, would be a huge bonus.

That’s not the same as saying that a Ph.D. in stats, or political science, ought to be a credential.  Lawyers who have litigated complicated employment, antitrust, or securities cases have to deal with statistics experts and are well exposed to the kinds of questions that need to be asked about their analyses.  To a lesser extent, so are judges who have sat on such  large commercial cases.  The point is that at least some exposure in statistics and social science techniques is quickly becoming part of a well-rounded legal education. It should also be part of what we look for in a Justice.

[Update: Michael Heise has more.]


Smart. Smart! Smart?

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the least attractive aspects of professional training in law is the tendency to equate smartness with judgment, and judgment with virtue.  Though law school doesn’t tend to reward either judgment or virtue, law practice does – and, more significantly, correlates effort and success in a way that the First Year Exam system rarely does.

It’s therefore unfortunate that the debate over Judge Sotomayor’s qualifications to be a Justice has turned to questions about her brilliance.  Rob Kar, in her defense, writes:

“Judge Sotomayor stands out from among these people as one of the very brightest; indeed, she is in that rarified class of people for whom it makes sense to say that there is no one genuinely smarter. (Others who have stood out in this way in my experience would include Harold Koh, the former dean of Yale Law School, and Peter Railton, a moral philosopher at the University of Michigan.)  Judge Sotomayor is much smarter than most people in the legal academy, and much smarter than most judges who are granted almost universal deference in situations like this. And while I have worked with numerous people who are thought of as some of the best minds in the nation, and about whom the question of brilliance would never even arise, most of them are—quite frankly—pedantic in comparison.”

I’m not sure that Prof. Kar is entirely serious here, but his post was picked up by TPM in its influential roundup, which noted the spreading of the idea that Sotomayor was “too temperamental–and not intelligent enough–” to be a Justice.

There’s plenty wrong with this mindset. Not least, as Bill Stuntz points out, “[intellectual] horsepower alone isn’t enough to produce a lasting impact on the law.” Vivid writing matters, as does judgment, and an appropriate sense of judicial role and temperment.  And, since the Justices are the highest profile lawyers in the country, so does personal history and demographics: lawyers should have professional models, to guide them in making hard decisions in the absence of judicial oversight.

As Orin points out, the quality of the information we use to evaluate the smartness of judges is terrible.  So why the focus?  I blame the Socratic Method, which teaches young lawyers that being a good lawyer is the same thing as being a good debater: quick, witty, cutting, etc.  We don’t want the smartest justice.  We want the wisest.  Or at least someone who understands that smartness correlates with wisdom about as well as law does to justice.


The Case for Sotomayor

I was not planning to say anything about the candidates to replace Justice Souter. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to do so after reading Jeffrey Rosen’s piece in the New Republic entitled “The Case Against Sotomayor.” (I’m sorry I can’t link to it here, but my home computer won’t allow me to do that for some reason.) Rosen’s negative characterization of the Judge, which is based on conversations with various unnamed lawyers, is inaccurate.

I have known the Judge for thirteen years. After my first year in law school, I was an intern in her chambers when she was a District Court judge. A few years after that, I was a clerk on the Second Circuit, where my judge sat with Judge Sotomayor on many panels and I observed oral arguments in which she was involved. And since then I have visited and spoken with her frequently on a range of issues. Thus, I feel like I have a special authority to talk about her qualifications.

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Justice Scalia’s Dossier: Joel Reidenberg Responds

Reidenberg-Joel.jpgProfessor Joel Reidenberg has asked me to post the following response to the story regarding his Justice Scalia dossier class assignment:

There seems to be significant misinformation circulating in the blogosphere relating to the nature of my class exercise, its instructional use, and how the exercise became public.

The exercise was part of my Information Privacy Law class this semester. The course, in exploring the origins and scope of privacy law, examined the ways technology can both invade and protect personal information and examined how the law related to those technologies. We used a traditional case book, Solove & Schwartz, and I supplemented the book with two concurrent exercises that are treated as course materials: 1) each week the students posted links on the course discussion board to news stories related to privacy issues so that we could discuss them in class and make connections to the casebook reading assignments; and, 2) throughout the semester, the students posted on a class discussion board links to information found on the web related to the class research exercise.

The research exercise is designed for class discussion to illustrate law and policy issues associated with readily available information, contextual use, social norms and the scope of legal protection. The exercise seeks to provide a first-hand experience for discussions of the boundary between public and private information, the loss of practical obscurity and the capacity of law to respond to these issues. For the exercise last year, I framed the research as a challenge to the class to find a specific piece of esoteric information about me. The class was surprised at how much information could be found readily. This year, I planned for the course to focus more attention on the blurring of public and private information and decided to frame the research exercise as a challenge to find information about a public figure. Very early in the semester, a news report about Justice Scalia’s speech was posted on the class discussion board as one of the weekly news items. He was reported to have made the comment that treating much of the information on the web as private was “silly.”

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Justice Scalia’s Dossier: Interesting Issues about Privacy and Ethics

justice-scalia.jpgEarlier this year, I blogged about Justice Scalia’s remarks about privacy at the Institute of American and Talmudic Law. According to media accounts:

“Every single datum about my life is private? That’s silly,” Scalia [said]. . . .

Scalia said he was largely untroubled by such Internet tracking. “I don’t find that particularly offensive,” he said. “I don’t find it a secret what I buy, unless it’s shameful.”

He added there’s some information that’s private, “but it doesn’t include what groceries I buy.” . . . .

Considering every fact about someone’s life private is “extraordinary,” he said, noting that data such as addresses have long been discernible, even if technology has made them easier to find.

At a recent conference at Fordham University sponsored in part by the Center on Law and Information Policy, Professor Joel Reidenberg discussed an assignment he gave to his class this past semester — find any public information about Justice Scalia and compile it into a dossier. As Kashmir Hill reports at Above the Law:

“Justice Scalia said he doesn’t care what people find out about him on the Internet,” said Reidenberg during his presentation on the transparency of personal information. “So I challenged my class to compile a dossier on him.”

Now four months later, at the end of the semester, the dossier (available online somewhere, but password protected) is 15 pages long. Among its contents are Nino’s home address, his home phone number, the movies he likes, his food preferences, his wife’s personal e-mail address, and “photos of his lovely grandchildren.”

“When the discrete bits of personal information were assembled at the end of the semester, the extent of the overall dossier and some of the particular items of readily available information on the web concerning his family and family life were astonishing to the class,” Reidenberg wrote to us.

Before the news of the dossier was reported by Above the Law, Reidenberg had sent a letter informing Justice Scalia about the dossier and offering to allow him to see it if he desired. The dossier was not made public.

Justice Scalia recently responded to the Above the Law post about Joel Reidenberg’s experiment:

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A Supreme Court Vacancy

Above the Law is reporting that Justice Souter has not hired clerks for the upcoming Term. While he is typically the last Justice to hire clerks, this is late even for him. This fact, combined with what I’m hearing from other people who probably know what they are talking about, convinces me that unless something extraordinary occurs in the next two months, he is retiring in June.

This means that breathless speculation about a successor can begin. (It’s never too early for that, right?) I’d be especially interested in what people think about Judge Kim Wardlaw (of the Ninth Circuit). While I hear her name mentioned as a possibility, I must confess that I know nothing about her.


2009 Judiciary Act: Part Four

This is my fourth post on the law professors’ proposal for a Judiciary Act of 2009. My first post is here. My second post is here. My third post is here.

The professors’ fourth proposal is to alter the certiorari process. The professors write that allowing the Justices to select their own cases makes the Court look like a “robed legislature.” By controlling their docket, the Justices are able to delegate the more basic tasks of adjudication of routine cases to lower courts and focus their efforts on writing new law. This, the professors contend, has contributed to growing unrest of citizens with judicial independence. “The independence of the judiciary is indispensable to the rule of law,” the professors explain, “but it is increasingly difficult to justify absolute independence for Justices whose chief work is expressing and imposing on the public laws on topics of their choice.” Moreover, state supreme courts and lower federal courts have taken a cue from the Supreme Court and likewise delegate routine tasks so that they can write extended opinions on important issues.

The professors propose the creation of a Certiorari Division of the Supreme Court staffed, by rotation, by experienced appellate judges. The Certiorari Division would review petitions for certiorari and select 80-100 cases each year for the Justices. The Justices could reverse some grants of certiorari and also grant certiorari in additional cases but the Court would be required to decide a substantial number of the cases identified by the Certiorari Division.

I am in favor of altering the current process by which the Supreme Court’s docket is set. Law clerks’ reviewing arguments by parties as to why and why not review should be granted is less than an ideal way to set the Court’s tasks. I am also generally sympathetic to the professors’ reliance on experienced appellate judges. Those judges could bring a sophisticated understanding of the law and a (more) reliable sense of when the Supreme Court’s intervention is warranted.

Given that the creation of the Certiorari Division is likely to encounter resistance, I have a different proposal that is easier to implement and addresses many of the professors’ own concerns.

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