Feature

The Supreme Court: Blatantly partisan?

Supreme Court justices no longer avoid public speeches and controversial statements to preserve the appearance of neutrality.

Conservative activists on the Supreme Court are erasing the “line between law and politics,” said The New York Times in an editorial. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are abandoning any pretense of objectivity in both their public actions and in their opinions, which now are often laced with “rambling, sarcastic political tirades” against Big Government and liberal social views. Scalia recently spoke before a closed-door forum on the Constitution organized by GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, a partisan extremist and heroine of the Tea Party. Last year, shortly before ruling that corporations should be free to give unlimited money to influence elections, Scalia and Thomas secretly attended a conservative strategy session organized by the billionaire Koch brothers. As the legal historian Lucas Powe recently pointed out, Scalia “is taking political partisanship to levels not seen in over half a century,” and Thomas is right behind him.

There’s nothing new here, said Ed Whelan in National Review Online. In his decades on the bench, Scalia has accepted almost every invitation to lecture about his legal philosophy, whether it’s from conservative billionaires, new congressmen, or—his personal favorite—a hostile auditorium full of leftist college students. Justice Ruth Ginsburg once let the liberal National Organization for Women name a lecture series after her, and then attended it. How come liberals didn’t howl when Ginsburg, and other liberal justices, hobnobbed with fellow leftists?

It’s one thing to hobnob, said Jonathan Turley in The Washington Post, and another to issue inflammatory, partisan statements. In the past, Supreme Court justices have rigorously avoided public speeches and controversial statements, so as to preserve an appearance of neutrality. Scalia has shattered that tradition, reveling in his role as the Right’s chief intellectual. Last month, for example, he volunteered in an interview that the Constitution does not guarantee women equal rights. When justices brazenly “carry the torch for their political allies,” it tells Americans that the rulings of the highest court in the land are purely partisan and arbitrary. The court used to have more ideological wild cards, and more 6-3 and 9-0 decisions, said Adam Liptak in The New York Times. Now every important ruling—including Bush v. Gore in 2000—is decided 5-4,  along partisan lines. If the court eventually strikes down President Obama’s health-care-reform law on a 5-4 decision, it may gravely undermine the court’s “prestige, authority, and legitimacy.”

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