Bashing Supreme Court Justices

“Bought and paid for.”

Those were the words from a litigant walking out of my courtroom after I ruled in favor of his opponent. He apparently thought I made my decision based on something other than the evidence and the legal standards, both of which were against him.

More on that later.

The United States Supreme Court and Political Persuasions

My thoughts today aren’t on politics: conservative, liberal, progressive, democrat, republican, or any other labels you can think of. This is about jurisprudence: the philosophy of law. Jurisprudence is what everyone has, whether applied to formal legal concepts or everyday decision making. You have a philosophy of law that you exercise every time you make a decision.

Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia this past weekend I’ve seen repeated mentions of his close relationship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They had differing jurisprudence and it showed in their decisions on the court. They also had a deep and abiding friendship, and it showed in their collegiality on and off the bench. As Justice Ginsburg put it, they shared a “reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve.”

I’ll say up front that I appreciate Ginsburg and I appreciate Scalia. It has nothing to do with their politics and everything to do with the fact that they are and were good judges.

Ginsburg and Scalia at George Washington University, February 2015

I read an unfortunate comment to one article about the Ginsburg/Scalia friendship. The commenter said that it’s a pity God took Scalia and not Ginsburg, that of the two we would be better off with her dead. Still others have said similar things about Scalia, practically joining in a chorus of “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” at his passing.

What horrible things to say.

But just as I said this post is not about politics, it also is not about good manners. This post is about jurisprudence. As a member of the judiciary I will tell you that I think both Ginsburg’s and Scalia’s contributions to the Supreme Court are worthy of appreciation. I have not agreed with either of them all the time, but I have never questioned their integrity in carrying out their duties as judges.

Too many people reading accounts of Supreme Court cases jump to the conclusion that decisions are based on the justices’ predisposed politics, a conclusion usually reached when the court’s decision is contrary to the person’s own political persuasion. After all, when is the last time you heard someone say, “I really like that last Supreme Court decision. Good thing the majority has the same politics I do and used their position to push my political agenda.” No, when someone speaks of the court acting politically it’s almost always because they disagree with the court’s decision. After all, the person reasons, how could the court make that decision unless it was politically motivated?

The bottom line for some people is that they think the Supreme Court acts properly and non-politically when it reaches decisions they agree with, and improperly and politically when it makes decisions the person disagrees with.

ussc justices

 

All right then, what about lower courts? What about trial courts like mine?

The litigant who thought my decision against him was based on my wanting to favor the other side is probably not a good measure of how people should view court decisions. After all, litigants are personally involved in the case. But citizens who look at Supreme Court decisions should know better. For one thing, they should know the court acts through all nine members, and that while some seem to vote similarly more often there is no guarantee in a given case who will line up on which side of the decision.

For another thing, few people expressing an opinion on a Supreme Court decision know as much about the case as the court does. In fact, people who cast aspersions on the justices know almost nothing about the facts and law of a given case.

The same thing goes in my court. My colleagues and I hear every word in a case, have the entire file to look at (which in some of my cases reaches upwards of 50 volumes), and consider all the evidence, evaluating it under the entire canon of the law of evidence– statutory and decisional – that applies to the case.

I don’t suggest that courts should not be subject to criticism. We are public institutions, created in the public interest to provide fair forums for disputes both civil and criminal. But I do know unfair criticism when I see it, and when it comes to the courts it is almost entirely uttered by people who don’t know all the facts nor the law that applies to the case the judge or justices decided.

Prayers for Authorities

1st Century statuette of Nero, British Museum

The Bible tells us how to deal with people who hold positions of authority in Government. When Paul wrote to his friend Timothy in the late 1st Century, the Roman Empire was ruled by Nero, a despicable Caesar if there ever was one. Yet here is what Paul advised:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4.)

Praying for authorities, even bad authorities, pleases God. We can pray for their actions and for their hearts. One thing Paul does not say we can pray for is their death, and I think the passage can be read as prohibiting that prayer since the point of the prayer is salvation of the person in authority. You can’t be saved from sin if you’re dead.

So can you pray for Supreme Court justices? Sure, and the Bible says you should.

Whether you agree with their decisions or not.

***

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25 Responses to Bashing Supreme Court Justices

  1. Rick says:

    Tim, I have so appreciated your thoughtful posts regarding Justice Scalia’s death and the context of life surrounding; I find myself choosing to not listen to the shouting from either polarized side. Much fear comes from a sense of powerlessness; I take comfort that the gospel took root at a time in which the church lacked any political or societal power. Jesus comes along side the disenfranchised–interesting days ahead. We are to be, I think, scandalously optimistic as the people whose hope rests in the Eternal God.

    • Tim says:

      Psalm 146 says we are not to put our trust in princes, and I think by extension we are also not to put our trust in the Supreme Court. We trust in the Living God. You’re right. That’s something to be scandalously optimistic about.

  2. I just can’t help but feel that so often we wallow around in the excesses of our own pride. We think we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We think we’re objective, but everyone else acts subjectively. We can too easily believe we know better even when we don’t have all the facts. Whether the subject be politics or theology or any number of other topics pride seems to dominate.

    I just see humility as so important for Christians to exhibit. Humility allows us to love others even when we disagree. It allows us to pray for even our enemies. Humility is the what Jesus so often exemplified. If we believe the philosophy of law for a Christian is love, humility and not pride needs to be in much greater abundance.

    • Tim says:

      This is a reminder I need every day, Jeremy. I don’t mind disagreeing with others. I do mind when my pride keeps me from seeing the other person as being made in God’s image.

      • I need it too. Pride seems the much easier track to follow. I struggle with it, but I’m not content to follow such a track. I wish I could say everyone, or even every Christian, I’ve met or interacted with feels the same.

  3. Tara says:

    Thank you for your service. We too often take for granted that our US Courts are typically not corrupt. It’s great American’s have opinions and concerning that many of them are self-appointed, unresearched experts in a vast array of topics.

  4. Pastor Bob says:

    To state that personal conviction has nothing to do with a decision is not 100% correct. I ma not speaking as a trial judge, but as one who has had to help people resolve a plethora of person disputes, ranging from the petty to ignoring me and going to court. (Based on some of these I real feel for the judges -some things do not belong in court, but it is a right to use the courts as needed.)

    When I am unsure, I have looked at the character of the both parties, what I know, and if I can delay the decision I seek general info on the situation form others, and what others know about the situation. Often I find discrepancies, sometimes not. More than once I have had to use personal discretion to reach a decision.

    Thus 100% based on facts presented is not always possible, perhaps 12 times in 30 years I have had to use other data.
    (p.s. – praying for you!)

    • Tim says:

      I didn’t say personal conviction has nothing to do with decision making. I think it does. What we want are people whose convictions guide them to set aside personal preferences – whether political or otherwise – to do their best to follow the law and analyze the evidence.

  5. Jeannie says:

    Whenever I hear someone wishing death on a certain person, I’m reminded of Gandalf’s words to Frodo when Frodo says that Gollum deserves death: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends.”

    • Tim says:

      Tolkien gave us powerful wisdom in those lines, Jeannie. Even for those of us called upon to mete out judgment, we should not be at all eager to do so but do it only with deliberation.

  6. Thanks for this, Tim. You have expressed some of my own thoughts here and your position as a judge (correct?) adds credibility. I could say the same things and simply sound like one of those folks who don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s not to say that I DO know what I’m talking about… 😉

  7. Laura Droege says:

    I don’t have much time to comment, but I want to express my appreciation for your words here and your service, Tim. You and other judges have tough jobs–I could never handle being a Supreme Court justice–and I thank God that he’s uniquely gifted you to do that task.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Laura. I am glad God has put me in a job I am suited for, although it’s not for everyone. Then again, there are a ton of jobs out there that I am not suited for either.

  8. Xian Atty says:

    Tim – This is really important. I disagreed with Justice Scalia on most issues but there’s no doubt he served this country to the best of his considerable ability. Justice Ginsberg spoke not only about her friendship with Scalia, the person, but of how his sharp wit made her a better jurist. Our judicial system is an adversarial one, where there are different roles to play. We need people we disagree with. Otherwise, our system wouldn’t work. And, yes, there are serious problems with our justice system, but as much as I disagreed with him, Justice Scalia wasn’t one of those problems.

    In my area, and probably most others, it’s usual at the end of a hearing for the attorneys to say “Thank you, Your Honor,” even when the judge has ruled against them. It’s a reminder that we honor the role and the process even when we don’t like the particulars.

    Regarding prayers for our leaders, you remind me of this exchange from Fiddler on the Roof: In the opening, a villager asks, “Rabbi, is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?” The Rabbi replies, “Of course. May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!”

    • Tim says:

      I love Fiddler!

      And I also love the way you put this: “We need people we disagree with. Otherwise, our system wouldn’t work.” That’s precisely why we have nine justices on the Supreme Court and not one Supreme Lawgiver sitting in the chamber.

  9. Tim, thank you for putting the smaller issue (and small-minded people!) into the broader perspective. Like you, I respect Justice Ginsberg and I respected Justice Scalia. Even though I did not agree with them–either of them–at times, I was almost always in awe and respect for the breadth and depth of their legal knowledge and opinions. (And, I am a veritable novice, where legal matters are concerned.) And, yes. We absolutely need to continue to pray for all political and governmental leaders, as Romans 13 tells us. Especially when we disagree with them and their opinions. To recap, superb post. All of it. @chaplaineliza

  10. Pingback: Ginsberg, Scalia Bashing | Leadingchurch.com

  11. Lesley says:

    Thank you for this, Tim! Wise words from a wise man.

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