Friday, April 17, 2009

What is a Hard Case for Justice Thomas?

As noted in a NY Times article, Justice Thomas made a rare public appearance recently. The article paints an interesting picture of the Justice, who describes himself as sometimes morose. Putting aside such issues of temperament and mood, here I want to focus on what Justice Thomas says about judging. The article concludes as follows:
“This job is easy for people who’ve never done it,” he said later. “What I have found in this job is they know more about it than I do, especially if they have the title ‘law professor.’ ”
Prima facie, that's a fair point. It's generally easier to criticize someone else's decisions than to make those decisions yourself. Thus, what Justice Thomas appears to be saying is that the burdens of responsibility make decision making harder. That's almost certainly right.

And yet, subject to some critical scrutiny, the point would seem to undermine Justice Thomas's philosophy of judging. More than any other Justice in recent history, Justice Thomas is committed to the separation of law and morality. Judges, in his view, should interpret authoritative texts (such as statutes and the Constitution) to mean what the words were generally understood to mean at the time of their enactment. This approach--generally now called "public meaning originalism"--typically carries with it the further postulate that judges who resort to moral reasoning are illegitimately imposing their own values on the public.

To be sure, not all public meaning originalists say that. Some "neo-originalists" think that the semantic content of the text is very frequently indeterminate, and that when it is, judges are authorized to make judgments based upon, among other things, moral considerations. But Justice Thomas is not such a neo-originalist. He is much more of an "old school" originalist who thinks that the original meaning of the text is almost always all one needs to resolve legal questions. Certainly Justice Thomas has both authored and signed onto opinions criticizing his colleagues for injecting moral considerations into legal analysis in circumstances where those colleagues no doubt thought the text a mere starting point.

Why then would Justice Thomas feel burdened by the responsibilities of making a decision? We can well imagine that even for an old school originalist, there are hard cases. But for someone with Justice Thomas's professed views, a hard case is one in which the judge needs to do a whole lot of hard work to try to resolve a historical linguistic question as best he can. He may need to burn the midnight oil reading 18th century newspapers, but he's not going to lose sleep agonizing over whether he is doing the right thing in any moral sense.

And yet, Justice Thomas appeared to say precisely that cases are hard because they pose hard issues about what the right thing to do is, all things considered. In a statement that is otherwise admirable for his recognition of the importance of church-state separation, Justice Thomas answered a question as follows:
“There are some cases that will drive you to your knees,” he added. “In those moments you ask for strength and wisdom to have the right answer and the courage to stand up for it. Beyond that, it would be illegitimate, I think, and a violation of my oath to incorporate my religious beliefs into the decision-making process.”
I suppose it's possible to be driven to your knees about whether to credit Alexander Hamilton or James Wilson as better expressing the original understanding about state sovereign immunity, but the much more natural way of reading this answer is that Justice Thomas is saying that he seeks the wisdom, strength and courage to resolve cases in ways that are not simply a matter of linguistic or historical fidelity. He appears to be saying, both here and in his comments about the burdens of judgment, that he actually worries about doing what is right. If so, it's too bad he feels the need to pretend otherwise in other settings.

Posted by Mike Dorf

9 comments:

Michael said...

I think your criticism is a valid one, but just to defend Thomas for a sec, he might also find decision making to be morally strenuous for a few reasons that are consistent with his judicial philosophy. (1)At a meta level, he certainly chooses whether to take a mechanical, originalist approach to the job--that decision itself might have moral implications. (2)Even if his judicial philosophy requires him to make a certain decision, he may still anguish over the human consequences of that decision. And (related to (2))(3)Thomas is not just a judge, he is also a human being. He has a responsibility to follow his oath and to otherwise act ethically. Might there be an occasion where his latter obligation would conflict with his former obligation?

Jonathan said...

I am not sure why this is a difficult question. Many judges, including Scalia in his 1989 Taft lecture on originalism, have noted that it can be difficult to adhere to one's judicial philosophy when it appears that it may produce manifestly unjust results in a specific case.

Likewise. Justice Thomas said the really tough cases are those in which his strong preferences and philosophy of judging conflict as being particularly difficult, especially when the consequences of the "right" result could have significant negative consequences. An example that Thomas reportedly gave in this talk (and has cited before) was when Haitian refugees sought to challenge their deportation. Justice Thomas has said that he felt strongly that they should not be forced back to Haiti, but did not believe the law was on their side. Believing that upholding the "law" in such situations is, in fact, the better course (even from a consequentialist standpoint) does not mean one is not moved by the immediate negative consequences on particular individuals.

This doesn't undermine his philosophy of judging. It just suggests that he is human, and understands the gravity of his work.

Jonathan H. Adler

Michael C. Dorf said...

Perhaps this is just semantics, but I think there is a substantial difference between the speech Jonathan Adler is describing---in which Justice Thomas was acknowledging that following the law, as he understands it, can lead to short-term harsh consequences---and what I take to be the thrust of the speech reported recently in the Times, in which Justice Thomas appeared to be saying that cases that pose difficult LEGAL questions sometimes are difficult because of the difficult normative questions they pose. The latter perspective is inconsistent with the strong separation of law and morality we see in Justice Thomas's judicial philosophy.

Jonathan said...

It was the same speech. According to the Law.com coverage, he used the Haiti refugee case as an example of this problem.

"On that subject, Thomas said that as a justice, "there are some tough cases ... some cases that drive you to your knees." Early in his tenure in 1992, he recalled, he faced the case of Haitian refugees that the government wanted to send back to Haiti. "I thought these people should have an opportunity to come into this country." But the law did not give him power to accomplish that, he said. "That wasn't a decision for me as a judge ... . It was enormously difficult to balance that limitation with what I wanted to do.""http://www.law.com/jsp/law/careercenter/lawArticleCareerCenter.jsp?id=1202429622123&Justice_Thomas_on_Rights_Law_School_and_Tough_Cases

I think the problem is with Liptak's coverage, not with any sentiment Thomas expressed. Indeed, while Liptak's Court coverage is usually pretty good, this article seems to bear little relationship to the actual speech Thomas gave.
See:
http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2009_04_12-2009_04_18.shtml#1239890008
and
http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2009/04/does-adam-liptak-have-any-sense-of-humor.html


JHA

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放鬆心情自由自在的來一趟花蓮旅遊,可以感受花蓮民宿各種不同的風味,所以來花蓮一定要住花蓮民宿哦!因為可從花蓮民宿主人那裡分享到不一樣的花蓮旅遊的經驗以及品嚐花蓮美食道地的花蓮小吃,所以來花蓮旅遊不一定就要享受花蓮高級餐廳的花蓮美食也可以多試試道地古早味的花蓮美味哦!來花蓮民宿可以放鬆整個心情,來花蓮電腦住宿也可以放空自已,來花蓮也可以了解在地的文化哦!住民宿其實是很輕鬆的,住花蓮民宿其實是很容易,還有就是現在是高油價的時代,還自行開車來花蓮嗎?來花蓮租車會比較輕鬆哦!來花蓮房屋租車會比較省錢哦!或是可以請花蓮計程車帶您包車旅遊喔!!歡迎來住住美麗的花蓮民宿囉!!一定要讓您來花蓮旅遊並且讓您愛上花蓮民宿,還有團購美食好吃的蜂蜜蛋糕、養顏美容的蜂王乳以及花蓮美食喔!!

freefun0616 said...

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狗熊克星 said...

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陽水がついに紅白に出演する
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『曲がれ!スプーン』
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