Founded by Drew Pearson 1932
An undignified Court
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – The news quickly went viral that conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito rolled his eyes as his colleague, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, read her dissent on behalf of the liberal minority in the Voting Rights decision handed down on Tuesday. Is it appropriate to impeach a judge from the high court for behaving like a child?
The answer is no, but watching Alito’s juvenile performance merits asking the question. This is not the first time Alito has let his inner child loose on an unsuspecting public. Unhappy with President Obama’s comments about the Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, Alito mouthed “Not true” while sitting in the front row with his fellow justices at the president’s 2010 state of the union speech before Congress.
He’s gotten a reputation for showing his impatience and/or his displeasure by staring at the ceiling or indulging in his now famous eye rolls. Someone should tell him that a big part of being a judge is the demeanor you bring to the bench. The phrase, judicial temperament, sums up the expectation that a judge is a serious student of the law, capable of setting aside personal biases to be impartial in applying the rule of law.
Alito’s behavior does not instill confidence in the Court, but rather reinforces the negative image of the Court as a political body sharply divided between right and left, incapable of rendering impartial judgments. Alito’s eye-roll this week was done in the context of a 5 to 4 decision that cuts the heart out of the Voting Rights Act. A spate of narrow decisions from the Roberts Court underscores the partisan leanings.
Alito’s defenders will say that other justices, notably Antonin Scalia, often exclaim from the bench or make comments that clearly reveal their partisan allegiances. The difference with Scalia is that he makes an effort to bridge the divide with the other side, sometimes in rulings but also in the relationships that he nurtures. He and Ginsberg are pals, and spend holidays together with their families.
Eye-rolling is a time-honored tactic to marginalize the views of others. It’s a common practice in debates, which by their very nature are biased, but it’s highly unusual in a court of law. Courts are supposed to be neutral territory where both sides get a fair shake. When Alito shows his contempt for the other side’s argument with body language that doesn’t belong in a courtroom, not only does his credibility suffer, the credibility of the entire Court takes a nosedive.
Judicial temperament is a basic requirement for anyone whose job it is to render judgment on others. If Alito can’t sit still long enough without betraying his thoughts, he doesn’t belong on the Court.
It’s up to Chief Justice Roberts to maintain decorum in his Court, and if he hasn’t already approached Alito to tell him he must rein in his reactions, he almost certainly will. Roberts is very aware of the Court’s reputation. He doesn’t want the Court on his watch to be seen as overly political. That’s evident even in the way the decisions have been handed out at the end of this term, with lopsided rulings made public early in the process, then the contentious 5 to 4 decisions, like this week’s ruling on voting rights.
If Alito can’t or won’t respond to a mild rebuke from Roberts, then his colleagues should consider censuring him. That won’t happen. The image of the Court is too important to risk putting it on the line with a vote to censure. It’s also way past time for dignity to make a judicial comeback.
© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND