At what point does an ideological lens morph into dishonesty and corruption? I don’t know the answer to that, but it is a pressing question raised by some highly dubious and arguably corrupt behaviors by two current Supreme Court Justices.
In the case of Clarence Thomas, highly questionable behavior has been obvious–and criticized–for years. More recently, with the revelations about his wife Ginni and her deep involvement in Trump’s attempted coup, his refusal to recuse himself in cases that might well implicate her is nothing short of scandalous. Now, there are growing, serious concerns about the degree of dishonesty characterizing Samuel Alito’s jurisprudence and (if recent accusations are found to be accurate) improper behaviors.
The purported basis upon which these justices have based controversial opinions goes under the rubric of “originalism.”
So what, exactly, is “originalism”? As a recent post to the History News Network began,
That’s the touchstone of constitutional jurisprudence over which Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett obsess.
It makes them feel righteous to do it, because for people like themselves the doctrine is faith.
They presume that the words of the Constitution possess essentially one “original” meaning. And they also presume they have the power to determine this meaning and then lord it over everyone else.
They believe this.
As the post proceeds to note, historians, linguists, and anyone possessing an ounce of intellectual integrity consider that iteration of originalism to be simple-minded dogma.
As an article about Amy Comey Barrett put it, arguments for originalism have always rested on flimsy foundations–and conservative judges have routinely ignored the doctrine when it interfered with a desired result.
It turns out that originalism’s real utility is its transactional value as a vehicle for other legal principles. The deeper structure of constitutional jurisprudence is the pervasive and foundational but largely unacknowledged influence of Catholic natural law moral philosophy. Barrett represents more than simply the latest link in the chain of custody for originalist jurisprudence that extends from her mentor, and one of originalism’s founding fathers, former Justice Antonin Scalia, to the present day.
The article argues that a medieval form of Catholicism, rather than Evangelical fundamentalism, permeates the judiciary–and especially the current Supreme Court. The article asserts that it is Catholicism that today forms the linchpin of culture-war conservatism in the United States.
The underlying organizational and intellectual impetus for this influence derives from Thomist Catholic perspectives—on natural law, in particular—that have achieved resurgence in the last 50 years and have infused conservative foundations and think tanks alongside vast amounts of donor money.
As Ruth Marcus noted in a recent column,
When originalist arguments favor a result the conservative justices dislike, they’re content to ignore them, or to cherry-pick competing originalist interpretations that comport with their underlying inclinations. Originalism doesn’t serve to constrain but to justify. This is not a fair fight — or an honest one.
Marcus’ column is lengthy, but well worth reading; she traces the evolution of the doctrine and its embrace by conservatives unhappy with the Warren Court’s approach, which I would characterize as a correct understanding of “original intent”–namely, looking to the values the Founders were trying to protect, and endeavoring to protect those values–free speech, freedom of religion, etc.–from previously unanticipated threats emerging from an environment the Founders could never have envisioned. (The Founders said nothing about free speech on the Internet…)
Multiple historians have objected to Alito’s highly inaccurate historic references in Dobbs, and recently a former leader of the anti-abortion movement has alleged that Alito leaked his equally troubling decision in the Hobby Lobby case to one of that leader’s colleagues..
To return to my initial question: when does a fervently held ideology become a corrupt enterprise? There is, after all, a difference between bringing a particular philosophical “lens” to the law and facts of a case (as any lawyer will confirm, it is impossible not to do so) and distorting and/or fabricating those facts and mischaracterizing that law in order to reach a desired result.
Corruption is not always financial. The dictionary defines corruption as “the process by which something is changed from its original use or meaning to one that is regarded as erroneous or debased.” Alito’s jurisprudence–which many lawyers, including this one, have criticized over the years–has arguably devolved into precisely such debasement.
Senator Durban has announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will investigate the allegations of that former leak, and there are renewed calls for the Court to adopt a binding code of ethics, which–unlike lower courts–it currently lacks.
Both that investigation and an undertaking to abide by the ethical principles that bind the rest of the legal profession are long overdue.