“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.
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.
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
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.