Losing My Faith

Faith isn’t only important for religions that emphasize faith over works.

Living emotionally healthy lives also involves having faith in our families and friends, and in our social institutions. Faith in the trustworthiness of government is critically important to the maintenance of a democratic polity–and after many years, I’ve lost my (undoubtedly naive) faith in part of America’s government–the Supreme Court. 

It was bad enough watching Brett Kavanaugh engage in his very un-judicial hysterical rant during his confirmation. It was infuriating when Mitch McConnell publicly displayed the game-playing that goes into elevating nominees to the highest court in the land. And of course, the almost-daily revelations about Justice Thomas are enough to make an ethical lawyer gag.

The rank dishonesty of today’s Court–on display when Alito’s theocratic impulses won majorities in Hobby Lobby and Dobbs–are far from the only evidence that the Court is not the collection of thoughtful, dispassionate legal analysts I once fondly believed.

A recent book by Stephen Vladeck focuses on the Court’s increased use of the shadow docket. Vladeck shows how the conservative justices ignored decades-old norms by using that docket, which doesn’t require briefing or consideration of the merits, to issue a series of shadowy unsigned and unexplained emergency orders.

The Shadow Docket was created as a mechanism to deal with issues requiring an immediate ruling on procedural matters, such as scheduling, or situations requiring maintenance of the status quo until the case could be considered on the merits, to avoid irreparable harm to a litigant.

Vladeck’s book describes the largely unnoticed shift towards what he calls “furtive justice.”  “The Shadow Docket: How the Supreme Court Uses Stealth Rulings to Amass Power and Undermine the Republic,” argues that rightwing justices have “abused the court’s emergency powers to run roughshod over the longstanding norm that shadow docket orders should be used sparingly and with extreme caution.”

Rightwing justices are now deploying such orders dozens of times each term. Over three terms alone, from 2019 to 2022, the court granted emergency relief in more than 60 cases: effectively overturning the considered decisions of lower courts through rushed, unexplained rulings.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the current Court is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, but like many lawyers, I stubbornly believed that the Court’s dysfunctions were of relatively recent vintage. (Thanks, McConnell!)

Then I read Erwin Chemerinsky’s 2015 book: The Case Against the Supreme Court.

Chemerinsky is one of my legal heroes. He’s an American legal scholar widely respected for his studies of constitutional law and federal civil procedure. Since 2017, he’s been the dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. (I was once on a panel with him, and he was erudite and self-effacing and altogether charming.)

The book is a scathing critique of the Supreme Court for failing–throughout its history– to carry out its most important responsibilities at critical moments. According to Chemerinsky, the two “preeminent purposes of the Court are to protect the rights of minorities who cannot rely on the political process and to uphold the Constitution in the face of any repressive desires of political majorities.” 

In the book, Chemerinsky goes through the Court’s jurisprudential history, identifying case after case in which the Court failed to take a stand for constitutional rights and principles. He gives example after example of the Court’s “decades-long support for government-sanctioned slavery, racial segregation, corporate favoritism, and suppression of speech during times of crisis.” “Throughout American history,” Chemerinsky writes, “the Court usually has been on the side of the powerful—government and business—at the expense of individuals whom the Constitution is designed to protect.”

Chemerinsky acknowledges that the Court has occasionally performed as we would hope, in cases like Brown v. Board of Education, but even the Warren Court–a high-water Court in the opinion of most legal scholars– doesn’t escape reproof. (He details in one chapter how “it did so much less than it needed to and should have done, even in the areas of its greatest accomplishments.”)

Chemerinsky absolutely eviscerates the Roberts Court–and that was in 2015, before Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett– enumerating the many ways in which that Court continues to favor the powerful over citizens in a wide range of areas from generic drug manufacturers to voting rights.

The book does provide a laundry list of reforms that might ameliorate the deficiencies: term limits for the Justices, several changes to the way the Court communicates, and –importantly–rigid ethical requirements and recusal procedures. 

 Vladeck and Chemerinsky–and the Roberts Court–have disabused me of my prior, naive faith in the Court. The domination of Congress by the GOP’s version of the Keystone Kops had previously removed any remaining confidence or faith in that body.

That leaves one leg of a three-legged stool……