Friday, June 26, 2015
June 26, judicial impartiality, and Justice Kennedy -- cause for concern?
At Above the Law, David Lat wrote yesterday "Why the Same-Sex Marriage Decision Will Likely Come Out Tomorrow." That's today, June 26.
Lat and others find in this speculation reason for excited anticipation. They should not, for the timing would further sharpen the perception that Justice Kennedy's amour-propre has played an outsized role in the Supreme Court's evaluation of same-sex marriage under federal law.
The speculation about June 26 as a day for "Big Gay Cases" (to use Lat's phrase) is based on the belief that Justice Kennedy has written an opinion for the Court requiring states to license and recognize same-sex marriages. Lat writes:
A June 26 hand-down of Obergefell would make that the day of decision for three of Justice Kennedy’s four Big Gay Cases — Lawrence, Windsor, and Obergefell (with Romer v. Evans, decided on May 20, 1996, as the only case not falling on June 26). And authorship of Obergefell would arguably make Justice Kennedy the single individual who has done more to advance gay rights in the United States than, well, anyone in history.
An astute observer of the Court corresponding with Lat points out that it appears unusual based on experience in recent years for the Court to schedule an opinion announcement for the Friday before the end of the Term. "There is no reason to break with character and issue a Friday decision," Craig Konnoth writes, "except to celebrate an anniversary." In an update, Lat notes that Justice Kennedy has "a sense of history and also a sense of drama, so if any justice would be attentive to anniversaries, it would be AMK."
All of this is highly speculative, as all involved acknowledge. And the final update on Lat's post quotes Eric Citron (a former Supreme Court clerk, current SCOTUSBlog commentator, and Supreme Court practitioner) with a strong formulation of the conventional wisdom about the timing of hand-downs. "The main determinant of when a case comes out is when it is ready; the Court barely considers other factors at all. And these matters are largely under the control of the Chief’s office, and I think it would be genuinely surprising, given all the things the Court is working on right now, if this kind of coincidence was in mind." I tend to agree with Citron. But Lat further comments "even if the decision on timing is ultimately up to Chief Justice Roberts, perhaps with input from the Reporter of Decisions, I can’t help thinking that the Chief would try to accommodate Justice Kennedy if AMK expressed a strong preference for June 26." And it is hard to disagree with that.
So, why would this timing be bad if deliberate? Justice is supposed to be blind. Judges should not try to create anniversaries of decisions of theirs that they would like to be celebrated. That is not how impartial judging operates. As John Finnis has written in the related context of criticizing Dworkinian moralism, "the horizon is ordinarily not the best focus for the judicial gaze."
I don't want to overstate the principle at work here. Judges may often properly have regard to the effect of timing on particular litigants. And this may even properly push them to work overtime to issue a decision more quickly. Consider the wrongfully convicted and imprisoned man now in possession of conclusive evidence exonerating him. The judicial system should work hard to end that injustice as soon as possible.
One might analogize that situation to same-sex marriage under the Constitution. Interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment to require State licensing and recognition of same-sex marriage, on this view, would be the correction of a historic injustice that cannot come fast enough. But that is not how Justice Kennedy and his colleagues have managed the issue thus far. A more accurate perception is the careful cultivation of public opinion, and concern to be on "the right side of history." Because these are not the actions of judges under the law, I hope this speculation of Above the Law is wrong.