Judicial impartiality and the Constitution

With President Barack Obama’s nomination of federal judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, the nation is in a debate about both the qualifications of the nominee and the proper criteria for selection. That the nation is divided over both obligates us to clarify their relationship to each other. Judge Sotomayor, whose Puerto Rican descent should not matter but it does because the President and she have that said it matters, is undergoing the by-now familiar microscopic examination that has attended these nominations since Judge Robert Bork was savaged by Senate Democrats in 1986. On paper the lady who has made much of her ethnicity is qualified, and she will be confirmed because her party has the votes.

I oppose this nomination for the simple reason that Judge Sotomayor does not understand, if she does not actively oppose, the United States Constitution as it was understood by its framers and ratifiers. But it is more important to set forth the grounds upon which this decision should be made than to emphasize the reasons why she should be rejected.

Both liberals and conservatives have a legitimate point about the requirements of constitutional jurisprudence but both have a blind spot. Liberals make much of the fact that the judges will inevitably bring to the table certain predispositions and preconceptions which will shape their decisions. This can hardly be doubted, but the question is whether the judges’ "baggage" will keep them from performing their duties well.

For if those predispositions and preconceptions are inconsistent with the character of the Constitution, not to mention the political philosophy which informs it in the Declaration of Independence, they carry no weight and should be disregarded. Hence, what race or gender one belongs to is irrelevant.

Conservatives contend that judges should not legislate from the bench but apply the Constitution and laws to the case before them. Their logic is unassailable but they are too prone to give bad laws the benefit of the doubt when they may in fact be unconstitutional. After all, most conservatives believe that Roe v. Wade (1973) was wrongly decided and even unconstitutional.

If this criticism seems unfair, consider the oft-repeated conservative criticism of "activist" judges who, pretty much as conservatives claim, go well beyond the role of judge and make up constitutional law that has no warrant in either the language of the Constitution or the judicial precedents relevant to a case. Is a judge who upholds the Constitution by striking down a state or federal statue in conflict with it a "passivist" judge?

Liberals criticize conservatives on the grounds that judges of their political philosophy are no less activist than liberals when it comes to their constitutional priorities. I grant the criticism, at least to this extent, that defense of the Constitution demands more of judges than simply applying the laws to a case.

However, judging is fundamentally different from legislating, as the former deals with specific cases and the latter devises general rules. We don’t want a Congress to decide who has violated its laws or to affix penalties for doing so. But we want all our public officials to abide by the Constitution because it is the supreme law and because it embodies justice.

The Constitution requires judges to be neutral between the parties in the cases which they decide, but it is not neutral about the requirements of justice. Its conception of justice entails "secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." The document empowers the federal and state governments to rule but also limits their powers in numerous ways. Beyond these limitations, ours is a republican constitution, that establishes rule by the people through their chosen representatives on behalf of purposes which their constitution spells out.

Our quarrel with judicial activism should be focused on a judge’s predilection to corrupt our Constitution with doctrines calculated to "transform" it from a guarantee of equal rights for all to a device for empowering government officials to favor allegedly underprivileged groups at the expense of everyone else. It is no accident that President Obama nominated a Latina woman with a class-based notion of justice, for such is what both of them want.

Our Constitution should be protected from the efforts of anyone to subvert it for unjust ends. The judges’ impartiality is in the service not of a neutral constitution but one which favors equal justice over class rule.