The President has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court. This has excited and inflamed many people, and the battle over his confirmation will be a wild one. Filibusters and nuclear options are all on the table, and it will be very interesting to see what happens.
One thing that has already become clear, though, is that a great many Americans have no idea what a judge is really supposed to do. It may sound too trite to even be mentioned, but the fundamental truth is that a judge’s job is to decide cases. Nothing more.
A great deal of the commentary that you will see from the opponents of Judge Gorsuch is startlingly uninformed. After the announcement, people were already labeling him as “dangerous” and “extreme”, even though they hadn’t heard of him five minutes before. They were portraying him as some kind of wild-eyed maniac who somehow had managed to get on the Circuit Court of Appeals. Never mind that he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for that position and that he has served there for the last decade without the Republic collapsing or anyone moving to impeach him.
The reality is that these advocates couldn’t care less about who Judge Gorsuch is (a pillar of his church and community), what his background is (both Columbia College and Harvard Law School, a few years behind me), or his years of outstanding public service (clerking on the Supreme Court and in a high position in the Justice Department). The reality is that these advocates only care about having a Supreme Court Justice who will enact their favored policy positions from the bench. And based on their rhetoric, the only issue that really seems to matter to them is abortion — they desperately want to keep abortion on demand legal in this country, and they don’t care how many people they have to calumniate and destroy to do it.
This campaign against Judge Gorsuch also betrays a complete lack of understanding about what a judge is supposed to do, and it illustrates how important it is for a judge to have a coherent philosophy of the law and a firm grasp of the essential principles of the American constitutional order.
Judges are not supposed to be super-legislators who make sure that their favored policies are embodied in their interpretation of the Constitution and statutes. Policy-making is the province of Congress and the President — the political branches that are subject to oversight by the electorate. The only job of the Supreme Court, as anyone can see in Article III of the Constitution, is to decide cases and controversies that arise under the Constitution and laws as well as certain other specific cases (like disputes between states).
Our Supreme Court has been violating that limited role for a very long time now. At least since the Progressive Era and especially since the New Deal, the Court has seen itself almost as a body of Platonic Guardians who can discern new meanings in the Constitution that nobody saw before. This is the body of judges who had the gall to say in the case of Casey v. Planned Parenthood:
Where, in the performance of its judicial duties, the Court decides a case in such a way as to resolve the sort of intensely divisive controversy reflected in Roe and those rare, comparable cases, its decision has a dimension that the resolution of the normal case does not carry. It is the dimension present whenever the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.
What gaseous nonsense. I defy anyone to find even a hint of such a role for the Court in the Constitution or in any of the writings of the Founders of our Republic. Madison, Hamilton and Washington would be appalled by such a pronouncement.
This highlights the importance of a sound judicial philosophy and a coherent understanding of the structure and principles of our Constitution. Too many Justices are on the bench already who lack this, and instead are ideologues (like Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor), smart but lock-step liberals (Justice Kagan and Breyer) or vacuous pragmatists (Justice Kennedy). They appeal to a non-existent entity they call the “living constitution” and use that to make up new laws as they go along. If you want to see how it’s done, see Obergefell v. Hodges. And in doing so they hijack the proper roles that the Constitution gives to Congress and the President.
Judge Gorsuch, on the other hand, is an “originalist” and a “textualist”, which means that his philosophy is to discern the actual meaning that Constitutional provisions had when they were adopted and the actual meaning of the words that appear in laws enacted by Congress. Then, in the common law tradition, he would see his job as applying those principles to decide the actual case or controversy that is before him. No vaporous pronouncements about grand roles of the Court, and no discoveries of new rights and liberties hiding in invisible ink in the penubras, emanations and miasmas of the Constitution.
This restrained approach to the law is what actually scares the advocates who oppose the judge. They have become so used to judges enacting their favorite policies that they can’t imagine one who does otherwise. They are desperate to hold onto their policy gains, and they dread putting them before the elected branches for an open democratic debate.
In ancient Rome, there was an office called the “Tribune of the People”. He had the power to veto any law or government action, and he was absolutely unaccountable to anyone — nobody could overrule him or even lay hands on him. That is not what our Constitution envisions when it gives the Supreme Court its “judicial power”. Judges should decide cases and controversies, give effect to the laws that were actually enacted by “we the people”, and not set themselves up as unaccountable rulers.