OFF THE GRID

Who Are These People on the Supreme Court?

May 4, 09 | 6:52 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The more attention that gets focused on the Supreme Court, the stranger it seems. Caroline Miller, Newser’s editor-in-chief, pointed out the recent laugh-out-loud nature of the court’s ruling in regard to a middle school strip search, with the court not just being screwball about the law, but dim about over-the-counter drugs, underwear, teenagers, and, generally speaking, modern life itself.

Now, with the announcement of the imminent resignation of Justice Souter, we get a close-up view of what an odd bird he is. Reading between the lines of a certain effort at nostalgia for Souter, who defied his appointment by a Republican president and mostly voted with the liberal wing of the court, we find an alarming anachronism. The effort to paint his disinclination or inability to use a computer as quaint and principled is believable to no one who actually uses a computer. It merely means Souter has vast personal limitations or eccentricities that border on emotional troubles.

Every time any of the other Justices gets a media close-up we get a similar picture of unworldliness, lack of professionalism, strange, crotchety, or fetishistic behavior, and, likewise, strong indications of emotional issues.

These guys, with an occasional woman in the mix, are spooky.


(AP Photo)

Most people, however, are more concerned with ideology when it comes to the court than with spookiness—they don’t see a connection between those two factors (i.e., people who over-identify with their political views are frightening). Hence, there is significant debate about how President Obama, a former teacher of constitutional law, should choose a suitable liberal.

The choices seem to be a) to take advantage of the great Democratic majority in the Senate and appoint an ideological fetishist in the tradition of the right wingers on the court, only left wing, b) to go for a less clear-cut ideologue who will not create such controversy but who will nevertheless be dependably liberal, and c) to widen the search to include people who are not judges and, therefore, possibly less doctrinaire, but, nevertheless, hopefully liberal. The nominee is also expected to be a woman, or of color, or preferably both.

A and B choices would presumably be a sitting member of an appeals court—because their judicial and political predilections are finely mapped—which all justices have been for a generation or so. This commonality points to a possible source of the spookiness—perhaps all federal judges are strange (good to know). Choice C would be someone from left field (although not necessarily left-wing field)—the kind of person who used to be regularly appointed to the court, a politician, say, or a man of affairs, or, in a new form, a woman of the world. Hence, someone with experience that involves something other than constitutional law itself.

But a C choice seems unlikely not least of all because a normally ambitious, upwardly mobile person with other career options besides sitting on a federal bench might not necessarily want to be stuck among such weirdos (even if it’s a job for life—especially because it’s a job for life). Imagine having to chat regularly with Justices Thomas or Scalia. (I’ve pointed out in this space in the past that once, sitting in an adjacent airplane seat, I had to chat with Justice Breyer, whose pants were hopelessly stained and misbuttoned—not proof positive of him being off-the-charts peculiar, but not a good start.)

The Supreme Court has become a collection of oddities and grotesques. We really ought to forget right or left, and just go for presentable.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.
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