The Morally Ambivalent Justice


Ronald Dworkin has a great piece in this week’s New York Review of Books on the Sotomayor confirmation hearings.  In it he criticizes the modern myth that judges are only supposed to apply the law rather than make “controversial judgements of political morality” – a point that I have made in the past.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Sadly, practically everyone concerned in judicial confirmation hearings—senators and nominees—has an overriding interest in embracing the myth that judges’ own political principles are irrelevant. Sotomayor was, of course, well advised to embrace that myth. Her initial statement, and her constant repetition of it, made her confirmation absolutely certain; she could lose the great prize only by a candor she had no reason to display. She was faced by a group of Republican senators who had no interest in exploring genuine constitutional issues but wanted only to score political points, if possible by embarrassing her but in any case to preen before their constituents. They scoured her record of extrajudicial speeches for any sign that she actually doubts the myth so they could declare her a hypocrite who is not faithful to the law after all.

Democratic senators had no wish to challenge the myth either. They only wanted to protect her from questions that might supply ammunition to her opponents, so they offered her endless opportunities to repeat her empty promise to follow the law. Only President Obama, in a remarkably candid statement, seemed to challenge the myth. The law, he said, decides 95 percent of the cases but that leaves 5 percent to be decided in the judge’s “heart.” Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona asked Sotomayor if she agreed with Obama on this point. No, she roundly declared, I do not.

So the minuet was choreographed, and any illumination ruled out, before the hearings began. Both supporting and opposition senators asked Sotomayor whether she approved of recent Supreme Court decisions they believe of particular concern to their constituents: about abortion, of course, but also gun control, the president’s power to defy Congress, his power to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely, and the permissibility of a city taking private property for private development. They wanted to be seen as knowledgeable and concerned by what worried voters.

You can find the entire article here.

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