Like everyone else, I was surprised last weekend to hear that Justice Antonin Scalia had died. Whether you agreed with him or not, he was a justice whose work changed the legal world.
I teach a law-school course on statutory interpretation. Coincidentally, at our first class after Justice Scalia’s death, our scheduled topic was his methodology for interpreting statutes. Before Scalia, courts often started with the legislative history, not the text. As he noted in a 1989 opinion, a brief to the Court had recently said, “Unfortunately, the legislative debates are not helpful. Thus, we turn to the other guidepost in this difficult area, statutory language.” After Scalia began pointing out arguments like that, everyone came to agree that you must start with the statutory text—and often you will end there as well, even if you also check the statute’s meaning against legislative history, statutory purpose, or past precedents.
But Justice Scalia brought more to the Court than the substance of his arguments—he also had an often-acerbic style and, in recent years, what seemed an openly partisan bent that contributed to the drop in public approval of the Court. Linda Greenhouse has put together an excellent review of where the Court sits today and how it got there (“Resetting the Post-Scalia Supreme Court”), published yesterday in the New York Times. She deals with both substance and style. Our blog is not concerned with the substance of Supreme Court opinions; we are concerned with the appearance of fairness in judicial proceedings. One of the basic tenets of the procedural-justice movement is that no matter who may win on the merits of a case, it’s important that those on all sides believe the judicial hearing was fair to them.
And this brings me back to the Greenhouse op-ed, in which she suggests that it’s time for the justices to hit the reset button. She recognizes that her column may seem “uncharitable, even tasteless” so soon after Scalia’s death, but she makes some good points, including some that Minnesota judge Kevin Burke and I have made in presentations around the country and in comments here on the Procedural Fairness Blog.
One key observation is that public disapproval of the United States Supreme Court—which had long enjoyed broad public support—has reached a new low. The Gallup Poll at the start of the Court’s term last October showed 50% disapproving of the way the Court handled its job, with only 45% approving. Equally important is that people now view the Court in a highly partisan way.
Viewing the Court as partisan rose sharply with the Bush v. Gore decision—after it, 80% of Republicans approved of the job the Court was doing compared to only 49% of Democrats. Those numbers evened out again until shortly after the appointments of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Samuel Alito. In late 2006, 75% of Republicans approved of the Court while only 48% of Democrats did.
But once President Barack Obama began making appointments, approval scores flipped—by mid-2009, 75% of Democrats approved of the Court compared to only 49% of Republicans. And the most recent Gallup survey in mid-2015, after decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, showed only 18% approval among Republicans (compared to 76% for Democrats and 49% for Independents).
Can the judiciary—and the American justice system—survive over the long haul with numbers like this? I think it’s a cause for real concern.
Greenhouse worries “that the conservative majority is permitting the court to become an agent of partisan warfare to an extent that threatens real damage to the institution.” She provides both substantive and procedural examples; I want to talk about the procedural-fairness side.
Back in 2012, when the Court heard its first set of cases on the Affordable Care Act, Kevin Burke and I (sometimes also joined by Tom Tyler or David Rottman) did some blog posts assessing how well the justices had done to provide the impression of a fair hearing. (See “Focused on Fairness: The Public Turns Its Attention to the U.S. Supreme Court,” “Supreme Court Gets a Passing Grade on Procedural Fairness—So Far,” “The Healthcare Ruling: The Public Stands Ready to Judge the Judges,” and “The Healthcare Decision: First Reaction.”) We generally commended them—but we also said that “one justice seemed tone-deaf at times to the principles of procedural fairness: Justice Antonin Scalia.” He was “the only one to introduce partisan politics directly into the discussion,” and he seemingly did so only to get a laugh line in. He also brought up what seemed a needlessly partisan reference to the so-called “Cornhusker kickback,” a charge that a Nebraska senator had traded his vote in exchange for a provision he sought. We said, “Using the term ‘kickback’ in referring to a provision that provided benefits to one state, Nebraska, in exchange for the vote of its senator sounds more like a political attack ad than the sort of question a neutral judge would ask.” We also noted that the provision Scalia referred to, while in the Affordable Care Act, was repealed by another bill before it took effect.
Greenhouse points to other examples and to Scalia’s “frequent parroting of right-wing talking points in recent years.” She suggests that this might be a time for the remaining justices to “tak[e] stock of the court, where it has been and where it goes now.”
I would like to follow up on her column with a few suggestions for the future of the court:
- The justices should approach oral arguments more as an open exchange with counsel than as an attempt to persuade their colleagues of the right result for the case. Often, it’s clear in oral argument how most of the justices will vote. Why not ask more open-ended questions, leaving the debate with colleagues for the case conference among the justices? I am an appellate judge myself, and I will concede that there are times when I try to move the discussion toward a point that I hope will be persuasive to a colleague. But I also try to ask some open-ended question even to the counsel for the side I think will likely lose. Doing so at least gives the attorney a chance to address what you see as his or her weakest point. And I try to ask the side I think likely to win to address its weakest point too, thus insuring that questions are addressed to the weaknesses of both sides.
- The justices should allow television coverage of their oral arguments. I have long thought that one of the reasons they don’t allow it may have been the way Justice Scalia carried on at oral argument. He did not fit a model of procedural fairness, and many of his remarks, particularly if cut up into bite-sized snippets, could have been quite harmful to the Court’s image. But many state supreme courts regularly stream their oral arguments over the Internet, allowing the public to see them at work. If the justices conducted themselves with an awareness of the importance that they appear open-minded and willing to listen to the parties’ arguments, televising the Court’s proceedings could be a key step toward improving the public’s impression of them.
- The justices should write opinions that are designed for the lay reader, not the constitutional lawyer. The decision in Brown v. Board of Education was intentionally made short enough that it could be reprinted in full in a newspaper. Even legal scholars and judges find it discouraging to wade through some of the lengthy and multiple opinions issued in some cases. How can the public have a sense that the Court has handled a case fairly if they can’t understand the Court’s opinion, which is its only work product?
Like Ms. Greenhouse, I don’t suggest that the low public-approval scores for the Court today are all based on Justice Scalia’s actions or even on those of all the justices put together. This is an era of intense partisanship. This is also an era in which trust in all institutions is low (and the Supreme Court’s approval remains higher than the other branches of the federal government).
Given this climate, we must earn the public’s trust today in each encounter we have with them. For the Supreme Court, these encounters occur through media coverage and written opinions, and could be valuably supplemented by allowing video coverage of oral arguments. For the long-term health of the judicial system, we need greater public support, and the public needs to believe that important cases have been handled fairly. Letting them see more of the process, making sure that the process appears to have been a fair one, and writing decisions so that members of the public can understand them would all be good steps to take.—Steve Leben