I've been working on some questions in case the makers of Trivial Pursuit ever decide to put forth a Supreme Court edition: Now that Sandra Day O'Connor has announced her retirement, how many remaining justices have ever held elected office? How many have previously served at the highest levels of the executive branch of government? How many have argued big-time commercial lawsuits within the past thirty-five years? How many have ever been either criminal defense lawyers or trial prosecutors? How many have presided over even a single criminal or civil trial? The answers are zero, zero, zero, one, and one, respectively. (David Souter was a New Hampshire prosecutor once upon a time, and later served as a trial judge.)
Flashbacks: "Looking Back at Brown v. Board of Education" (May 17, 2004)
Articles from 1954 and 1960 offer a look at how the Supreme Court's landmark desegregation ruling was initially received.
The answers would have been starkly different fifty years ago. Five of the nine justices who decided Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, had once worked as trial prosecutors, and several had substantial hands-on experience in commercial litigation. More famously, that Court included a former governor, three former senators, two former attorneys general, two former solicitors general, and a former SEC chairman.
That Court, in other words, was intimately familiar with the everyday workings of the political and judicial systems, and with the beliefs and concerns of everyday Americans. Not so the Court that recessed in June, eight of whose members (in addition to their long tenure in the splendid isolation of the Supreme Court's marble palace) have been drawn from judgeships on appellate courts, and sometimes from academic law before that—places already far removed from the hurly-burly of our judicial and political systems. The current justices are smart and dedicated. But they're not like you and me.