“Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835. And many judicial questions resolve, quickly, into partisan disputes.
That dissonance, however, seems particularly marked this fall. Not since the New Deal crisis of 1937 has the Supreme Court been so clearly revealed to the world as fully enmeshed in the rankest partisan politics. There seems little prospect of disengagement any time soon.
The impudent glee of Gorsuch’s supporters may account for the leaden feeling that assails me as the first Monday in October, which opens the Supreme Court’s 2017-18 term, bears down upon us. This term may resolve some crucial questions about the future of democracy in the era of authoritarianism: the role of race and religion in American immigration law; the role of partisan line-drawing in American legislative elections; the remaining scope of the battered right to vote; the depth of the law’s commitment to marriage equality and LGBT rights.
The Supreme Court that will address these issues, however, seems to me a different creature than the Court I have alternately loved, and hated, for nearly half a century.
It has been a long glide path from the exalted place the Court once held in the American mind; but we may at last have arrived at a place where it is simply another cog in the partisan-industrial complex, as “neutral” as the White House press room or the Democratic Governors Conference. I find myself fighting the impulse to identify the justice, like a member of Congress, with a partisan parenthetical on first reference.
As a Southerner growing up in the autumn of segregation, many of my first childhood memories were of adults discussing the Court. Many white adults hated and feared it; many African Americans revered it. But nobody thought of the Court as a party instrument. Some judicial liberals—such as Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William Brennan—were Republican appointees; some conservatives—like Justices Felix Frankfurter and Byron White—had been chosen by Democratic presidents. The Court’s decisions were sometimes exhilarating (I think of New York Times v. Sullivan, the key press-freedom case, and United States v. United States District Court, which rebuked President Richard Nixon’s claim of unlimited power to order warrantless wiretaps), and they were sometimes appalling (Buckley v. Valeo, the first campaign-finance case, started the law on the road to Citizens United; McCleskey v. Kemp concluded that overwhelming statistical evidence of racist application was simply irrelevant to the law of the death penalty).
None of them seemed like the triumph of one party.
Everyone knows, and always has known, that politics plays a role in shaping the courts. The old street definition of a federal judge is a lawyer who knows a politician. During the New Deal, the liberal wing of the Democratic party, led by President Franklin Roosevelt, mounted a sharp attack on the Court’s independence. Roosevelt proposed a “Judicial Procedures Reform” bill that, he said, would “infuse new blood into all our Courts,” allowing him to appoint up to six new “judges who will bring to the Courts a present-day sense of the Constitution.”