Never doubt for a moment that law is at its core politics. If you do doubt it, then read Jeffrey Toobin’s latest book, “The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court” (Doubleday, New York, 2012).
Toobin writes about the high court as well as anyone living. His first book on the court, “The Nine,” relied extensively on interviews with court clerks, and, perhaps, the justices themselves.
He returns to those sources in “The Oath” to provide a behind the scenes look at the court’s most controversial decisions during the past four years.
If you’re like most folks, you think an appeal to the Constitution, like reliance on the Bible, should end any debate.
“The Constitution says ...,” we like to say, just as we report on Jesus’s utterances as though he were walking among us. But reliance on both the Bible and the Constitution is really the beginning of any debate; just what we are to make of these documents, how we are to read them, is the stuff of both theology and the law.
The high priests of constitutional interpretation are the nine justices of the Supreme Court, each appointed for life, and most serving well into their 80s. They are the final arbiters of what the Constitution means. A political party controlling the appointment of judges can exert great influence on how the document is read and interpreted.
Today’s debate on judges pits “judicial activists,” judges who “legislate from the bench,” unelected elites imposing their values on the rest of us, against originalists, those adhering to the intent of the founders. Or so the argument goes. What if the real activists were those pretending both that the founders’ intentions could be readily discerned and that the founders really wanted us to be faithful to their intentions? What if originalism is really just an ideological hoax?
This debate about competing schools of constitutional interpretation pits, in the language of the law’s scholars, proponents of “originalism” against the “living constitution.”
The bizarre notion that we are to interpret the Constitution as strict textualists bound to the intentions of the framers is largely the brainchild of Justice Antonin Scalia. It serves as the political platform of the Federalist Society, a group which set its sights, a quarter of a century ago, on transforming the judiciary into a group of lifetime appointees dedicated to reading the current values of the Republican Party into the law of the land. It is activism of the highest kind, hoping to eliminate a woman’s right to have an abortion, to securing an individual’s right to possess firearms, to making public life better reflect the private religious beliefs of those who claim a close familiarity with God’s will.
Toobin decodes judicial decisions on such issues as corporate contributions to political advocacy campaigns, health-care reform and immigration reform, into expressions of political or policy preferences by the justices.
A core of four steadfastly conservative justices, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, can be counted on to tilt in the direction of Republican windmills; Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg will tilt in the direction of the Democrats.
That leaves Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote, and, in Toobin’s view, a man with a vast and somewhat egomaniacal view of his role as a justice, with the enormous power to decide cases by siding with either the conservative or liberal bloc of justices.
A document so clear in its meaning that only those willfully blind can misread it ought not routinely yield 5-4 decisions when put to the test of interpretation.
Toobin ends his book with the following observation, which summarizes things perfectly:
“There was some irony in the conservative embrace of originalism, in insistence by Scalia and others that the Constitution is ‘dead’ and unchanging. With their success, driven by people, ideas, and money, conservatives proved just how much the Constitution can change, and it did. Obama and his party were the ones who acted like the Constitution remained inert; they hoped the Constitution and the values underlying it would somehow take care of themselves. That has never happened, and it never will. Invariably, inevitably, the Constitution lives.”
Long live, I might add, the living Constitution.