RBG, Senate Judicial Confirmations And The ‘Good Old Days’

Ruth Bader Ginsburg at GW Law School

 

A bipartisan Senate confirmation process for Supreme Court nominees was only possible when politicians were idealistic enough to view the court as being above politics, and trust it to remain so

In her appearance yesterday at GW Law School, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked to reflect on what had changed since she was nominated to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and her thoughts on the new landscape as Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh awaits confirmation by the Senate.

In her response, Justice Ginsburg lamented the sharp decline (if not extinction) of bipartisan cooperation and mutual trust between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives. Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96-3 when she was up for nomination, a tally that would be unheard of today, when political polarization often makes us think of each other more as enemies than fellow citizens. Still, Ginsburg expressed a desire to roll the clock back.

From the National Review:

In a Wednesday appearance at George Washington University Law School, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lamented the degree to which partisanship has infected the judicial-confirmation process, calling Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanuagh’s recent confirmation hearing a “highly partisan show.”

Contrasting Kavanaugh’s hearings last week with her own, which occurred in 1993, Ginsburg called the partisan grandstanding of Democrats “wrong” and expressed a desire to return a spirit of collegiality to the process.

“The way it was was right. The way it is is wrong,” Ginsburg said to applause. “The atmosphere in ’93 was truly bipartisan. The vote on my confirmation was 96 to three, even though I had spent about ten years of my life litigating cases under the auspices of the ACLU and I was on the ACLU board. . . . That’s the way it should be, instead of what it’s become, which is a highly partisan show. The Republicans move in lock step, so do the Democrats. I wish I could wave a magic wand and have it go back to the way it was.”

This, together with virtually everything else the Justice said, was met with wild and fervent applause in the hall, and enthusiastic agreement online after the fact. And Ginsburg is certainly right – the American system of government can not work as it should when the Supreme Court becomes simply an extension of Congress, where partisan justices nakedly vote to advance a party political agenda and the Constitution is treated as little more than rhetorical clothing for their decisions.

Justice Ginsburg’s confirmation process reminds us that even as recently as 1993, the Senate was able to do the right thing – to confirm a qualified candidate for a position on the highest court in the land on the basis of her known competence and record, even though at least half of the senators voting to confirm her probably disagreed both with her politics and her judicial philosophy. Back then, senators still understood and acknowledged that the test for a Supreme Court candidate was not whether one agreed with their judicial philosophy, but rather whether or not the nominee’s philosophy and approach to the law was derived and applied in good faith. In Ginsburg’s case there was no doubt, and so many Republicans lined up to vote for a card-carrying ACLU member and avowed friend of abortion rights.

Fast-forward to 2018, and how different things look. Desperate to prevent outgoing President Barack Obama from making a third appointment to the court, Republicans created out of thin air a new pseudo-rule that presidents in their last year of office must refrain from making appointments and wait instead for their successor to take office. Thus, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prevented the senate from even considering the nomination of Obama nominee Merrick Garland, an eminently qualified candidate, allowing the newly-elected President Trump to nominate Justice Neil Gorsuch to the “stolen” seat.

Now, with President Trump in the White House in the prime (or perhaps nadir) of his first term, many Democrats are inventing another pseudo-rule that presidents whose political campaigns are under investigation for potential corruption and coordination with a foreign power  should not be allowed to fill an opening on the court.

Of course, even if both sides did not have their respective arguments to fall back on, most senators within each party would not vote to confirm a candidate seen as sympathetic to the other side, no matter how well qualified. The entire process has become a performance spectacle, where senators with absolutely no intention of voting for a nominee under any circumstance still wail and rend their garments about not being provided with the documents they have already admitted will not influence their negative decision.

Jonathan Turley (full disclosure: my current Torts professor) explains at greater length the problem with theatrics superseding substance:

[T]he Kavanaugh hearings left a troubling and damaging precedent for a process that already lacked substantive content. I have been a critic for years of the modern confirmation hearing, which is largely about senators rather than nominees. The hearings drained what little substance remained in the process. The unilateral denial of documents and theatrics of the opposition left the hearings as little more than a stunt by both parties.

In the absence of sincerity, everybody is now playing a role rather than speaking honestly about their motivations. Judicial nominees play a role (usually that of someone who has taken a vow of silence), senators play a role (amateur dramatics wannabes, mostly) and we all play a role, pretending that we want bipartisanship when really we would be quite happy to stuff the court full of likeminded souls and call it a day.

 

All of which led me to question why everybody applauded Justice Ginsburg as she called for a return to the bipartisanship of the early 1990s. The justice is absolutely right, but many of those applauding – particularly on the Left – seem not to have thought through the consequences of what it is that they are endorsing.

A return to 1990s, Ginsburg-era bipartisanship would see Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh confirmed by a margin nearly as large as the Notorious RBG’s 96-3 blowout. Why? Because while probably far from the greatest American legal mind alive today, Kavanaugh is eminently qualified for the role. His former classmates and professors at Yale Law School say so. His former law clerks say so. The American Bar Association, which is invited to rate all nominees and testify as to their suitability, rates him as highly qualified.

The only issue would therefore be his conservative politics, past service with the Bush administration and the seeming antipathy of his judicial philosophy to the reasoning behind Roe v. Wade. And by that standard, Democrats would have to swallow their bile and give the man their support. That’s what Republicans did when they voted for Justice Ginsburg, and unless their crocodile tears for the age of bipartisanship are a complete lie, then that’s what Democrats would have to do, in the spirit of consistency, for Brett Kavanaugh.

Some might argue that this is different, that Kavanaugh would be filling the “swing seat” recently occupied by retired Justice Anthony Kennedy and thus tilting the court in a more conservative direction, while Justice Ginsburg’s 1993 appointment merely preserved the pre-existing balance. But there was no asterisk by the word “bipartisan” when Justice Ginsburg uttered it and everybody cheered. She did not say “bipartisanship, except when the ideological alignment of the court is in question, at which point everyone should vote in as nakedly partisan a way as they see fit”. She called for a return to senate bipartisanship, period.

And true bipartisanship with regard to the Supreme Court means accepting the somewhat random nature of the court’s changing shape – that the ideological or philosophical leaning of the court will fluctuate depending on when individual justices retire and which party happens to hold the White House when they do so. True bipartisanship would entail Democrats voting for Brett Kavanaugh and more Republicans voting for the likes of Sonia Sotomayor (68-31) or Elena Kagan (63-37) without complaint, based on their status as qualified, competent candidates.

(We should avoid becoming misty-eyed about the past, though – Justice Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court only after highly contentious hearings and a wafer-thin, decidedly partisan 52-48 vote).

If giving this bipartisan benefit of the doubt now seems impossible – if the idea of vesting many of our fundamental rights and privileges on nine unelected judges who may sometimes lean conservative – then rather than seeking to pack the court with our own ideological soulmates and protesting when the other side does the same, we should return to a system where the rights we consider to be fundamental are put out of daily political reach and enshrined in the Constitution, rather than being fortuitously discovered by “activist” courts or cruelly struck down by “reactionary” ones.

Democrats no doubt argue that in the case of this nomination, the stakes are so high as to justify any lengths of procedural opposition. But Republicans say the same thing when Democrats are in power. That’s what happens when we see each other not as fellow citizens with legitimate political differences but dangerous enemies who pose emotional and physical harm to one another.

I have only been a law student for a month, but even now I can see that the Common Law (and case law in particular), while an remarkable, complex and ever-changing creation, is the very last place you want to vest your most fundamental freedoms. Why? Because fundamental rights which only exist as judicial opinions are at daily risk of being reshaped, expanded, curtailed or reinterpreted by courts across the land. That’s why the right to free speech is properly enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, a safe place where it is much harder to “get at it”, rather than existing as a few throwaway lines in Smith v. Smith, where today’s prevailing attitudes could alter its meaning in about the same subtle way that an avalanche reconfigures a mountain slope.

If we were being honest and sincere when we applauded Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s call for a return to bipartisanship last night, we need to hold ourselves to that higher standard at all times, not simply mourn its loss when the other side holds the reins of power. We need to do the harder work of engaging with our fellow citizens and convincing them that our ideas are superior, building enough of a national consensus that we can prevail with legislative (and where necessary, Constitutional) solutions rather than seeking to take judicial shortcuts around public opinion or political impasse.

Justice Ginsburg talked about “wav[ing] a magic wand” to return to the days of bipartisanship and a less politicized judiciary. But there is no magic solution, no one action that can be taken. The legitimacy of our legal system depends on the behavior of those who run it, supervise it and avail themselves of it. We could return to the days of Justice Ginsburg’s confirmation any time we want, but with a vacant seat on the court today, that would mean Democrats paying a price that they are unwilling to pay. And, to be fair, why should they be expected to pay that political price when the Republicans have proven to be such untrustworthy partners?

So we either take the leap of trust together, or things continue on as they are, becoming progressively worse as every judicial nomination and every Supreme Court decision becomes an existential battle. I fear that despite these rare, commendable calls for bipartisanship, we all know which way we are headed.

 

UPDATE – 14 September

In a commendable display of legal objectivity, prominent lawyer Lisa Blatt – who refers to herself as a “liberal feminist” – writes for Politico Magazine, urging Democrats to vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh despite their ideological disagreement with him.

Money quote:

I do not have a single litmus test for a nominee. My standard is whether the nominee is unquestionably well-qualified, brilliant, has integrity and is within the mainstream of legal thought. Kavanaugh easily meets those criteria. I have no insight into his views on Roe v. Wade—something extremely important to me as a liberal, female Democrat and mother of a teenage girl. But whatever he decides on Roe, I know it will be because he believes the Constitution requires that result.

It’s easy to forget that the 41 Republican senators who voted to confirm Ginsburg knew she was a solid vote in favor of Roe, but nonetheless voted for her because of her overwhelming qualifications. Just as a Democratic nominee with similar credentials and mainstream legal views deserves to be confirmed, so too does Kavanaugh—not because he will come out the way I want in each case or even most cases, but because he will do the job with dignity, intelligence, empathy and integrity.

If we had more people who think like Lisa Blatt serving in the US senate – or indeed within the judiciary – then we might not be languishing in the bitter, distrustful, polarized stalemate in which we find ourselves.

 

UPDATE 2 – 14 September

Trust the extremists over at Above the Law to take an entirely contrary view.

Notorious RBG - Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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In The Presence Of RBG

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserves to be celebrated for her trailblazing career and for her jurisprudence, not simply reduced to a pop culture meme and uncritically worshipped for supporting the progressive political agenda

Today, the famed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court – now better known as the Notorious RBG – came to speak at my law school. As well she should, perhaps, since she only lives about six blocks away…

It was good to hear the justice and see her firsthand, though if you have watched any of her other recent appearances or speeches (as I have) you would not have learned anything new today, besides a few interesting factoids about the various films and documentaries being made about her life and career.

I have become rather wary of the “cult of personality” which builds up around some jurists, most notably in recent years Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – not because either are at all undeserving of the praise and respect they receive(d), but because treating a justice of the Supreme Court first and foremost as a warrior fighting for one’s own pet political issues contributes significantly to the politicization of the court. Especially now, when many American institutions – from the presidency to Congress to the media – face a corrosive crisis of legitimacy, doing anything which makes the Supreme Court even more of the extended political battlefield that it already is seems reckless.

Already we have a president who has vowed to only nominate candidates with preset positions on hot-button issues like abortion, and leftists who call for adding seats to the court to dilute the “conservative” voting bloc – we don’t need to go any further in those unseemly directions.

 

Also from a political perspective, it does not go unnoticed that the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court conspicuously fails to enjoy the same acclaim and cult of personality reserved for Justice Ginsburg, the second. Sandra Day O’Connor, nominated by Ronald Reagan and who served on the court from 1981 to 2006, was every bit the trailblazer as Ginsburg. O’Connor, too, had to contend with endemic sexism in her career and achieved a level of success which sets a shining example for aspiring male and female lawyers everywhere. But of course O’Connor, nominated by a Republican president and with a voting record to the court’s ideological right, does not make such compelling Hollywood fodder in a culture which often only celebrates women to the extent they espouse mandatory progressive values. This is a real shame, because O’Connor’s story is very inspiring in its own right. Overlooking O’Connor in order to bestow all of our adulation upon “The Notorious RBG” is akin to ignoring Neil Armstrong and venerating Buzz Aldrin as the only hero of Apollo 11.

As it happens, both Scalia and Ginsburg have written opinions and dissents which I admire (with my still largely-unformed legal brain). I am generally of the opinion that it should be for the state and federal legislatures to explicitly expand enumerated rights by statute or Constitutional amendment rather than continue the charade of having the Supreme Court “discover” new rights which were apparently lurking all along undetected in the words of the founding document. The latter seems like a disingenuous approach, albeit one pursued by both Left and Right on different occasions.

And as Ginsburg pointed out in her remarks this evening, explaining her own equivocation on Roe v. Wade, it can actually be counterproductive for an overly activist court to overstep its bounds and create sweeping new rights at the vanguard of social change. Why? Because this can lead to a political backlash and give opponents a single case law target on which to focus their fire, rather than having to “fight in the trenches” to oppose change in the fifty individual states. How much more secure would Roe supporters now feel in the Age of Trump if the rights they seek to preserve rested upon something more than one solitary Supreme Court decision?

Regardless, there is nothing like looking at Justice Ginsburg’s biography and accomplishments to make one feel inadequate. Here is someone who attended both Harvard and Columbia law schools, served on law review, came up through the ranks of the legal profession when there was real overt hostility to women lawyers, and served a quarter century and counting on the United States Supreme Court. Meanwhile, I plod through my Civil Procedure casebook and try in vain for the third time to understand what the blazes I am supposed to take away from Pennoyer v. Neff.

But I certainly return to my casebooks this evening with an injection of fresh motivation and inspiration. I do not agree with every last one of Justice Ginsburg’s opinions or share her overall judicial philosophy, but I still come away full of admiration, having briefly been in the presence of a real giant of the law. If, at the end of my own legal career I can look back and claim to have made one hundredth of the contribution to law and American life accomplished by Justice Ginsburg then I shall consider my decision to pursue this new calling vindicated one hundred times over.

 

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Article 50 Appeal: How Can The British People Respect A Remote And Opaque Judiciary They Do Not Understand?

uk-supreme-court-brexit-article-50-ruling-challenge-parliament-mps

The nation’s eyes were fixed today on the UK Supreme Court as it hears the government’s appeal to overturn a High Court ruling that ministers cannot trigger Article 50 and begin the formal Brexit process without first winning a vote of MPs in parliament. But the arcane, complex and remote British judicial system makes it almost impossible for even informed citizens to follow proceedings or judge the validity of the court’s eventual findings for themselves

Unlike the much more famous United States Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is televised – anybody can log onto the court’s website and watch cases being heard via live webcast, including the momentous case currently before the court, in which the government is appealing a High Court ruling that ministers cannot trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to formally begin the Brexit process without first gaining the assent of MPs in a parliamentary vote.

And so today the British news channels spent large parts of the day simply broadcasting the goings-on in Court room 1, where the appeal is being heard. Anybody with a passing interest was able to tune in and watch for themselves as the government’s legal team, led by the Attorney General, made their case to the eleven justices (incidentally the first time that all eleven had sat together for the same case).

And yet despite this wall-to-wall media coverage, I doubt that more than a fraction of those who watched any of the proceedings really understood what was happening, or could place the appeal and the arguments being made in the context of Britain’s judicial system and how it fits into our system of government. I include myself in that group of confused onlookers. And if citizens do not understand the basic workings of one of the three branches of government, how are they to know whether the decisions reached are just and legitimate? And how are they to confer their own legitimacy of acceptance upon those institutions?

If a case about mass surveillance makes it to the US Supreme Court, many Americans will automatically recognise that this concerns the Fourth Amendment (forbidding unreasonable searches and seizures of property by government). They may not know much more than that, but the fact that America has a written constitution gives even ill-educated citizens a basic frame of reference when discussing newsworthy legal matters, while a fundamental education in civics teaches them that a president or Congress cannot simply override the rulings of the Supreme Court if they find them inconvenient – and that trying to sidestep the court by amending the Constitution is prohibitively difficult, thus forming one of the famous “checks and balances” in the American system of government.

Contrast this basic civic awareness in America with the dire state of affairs in Britain. Although I do not have an opinion poll to back me up, I would be surprised if one third of British citizens knew that we even had a Supreme Court (it was only founded in 2009, taking over from the previous Law Lords), let alone the names of a single one of its justices.

(Incidentally, the PC Left and rabid practitioners of identity politics are missing a trick here – ten of the eleven current justices of the UK Supreme Court are old white men, with the remaining justice an old white woman. Are these people really the most qualified for the job, or did they get their positions through the chumocracy and establishment connections? Why is there no public confirmation process, to give democratic oversight to the selection of new justices, as there is in America? And yet how many times has the UK Supreme Court been picketed by angry Social Justice Warriors demanding gender and ethnic balance on the court? Never.)

I will be honest and start by admitting that prior to the EU referendum campaign this year, I could only name one justice of the UK Supreme Court – Lord Neuberger, the court’s president. And that’s awful. I write about politics and UK current affairs every day and consume several hours of news on television, the internet and social media besides, but I could only name one person on the bench of the UK Supreme Court. I could speak for hours about the US Supreme Court, its current and past justices and many of the famous cases it has decided, but not so for the Supreme Court of my own country. And if I can’t rattle off a handful of facts and names together with a brief commentary on their respective legal and ideological outlooks, how many people are actually able to do so?

How many laymen – people without a direct professional or personal interest in the workings or judgements of the court – actually do know who sits on the UK’s Supreme Court? How many could explain at a high level how the judicial system works, with the division between civil and criminal court, the work done by solicitors and barristers, and the hierarchy of trial and appellate courts? Or the difference between the Scottish system and that of England and Wales? All that I currently know, I learned from an Introduction to Business Law course while studying at university – there were no civics lessons in the 1990s National Curriculum while I was at school. And many others will not have even received this basic primer.

But how are we to fulfil our potential as informed and engaged citizens when we fail to understand how one of the three major branches of government works? Most people have a passable grasp of the executive and the legislature, even if they don’t recognise the Government and the Houses of Parliament using those terms. But I very much doubt that one adult in twenty could explain the fundamentals of our legal system, let alone the many layered intricacies.

But flip it around. Why would we know how our legal system works, or recognise the major personalities in the British legal scene? And why should we bother to take the time to educate ourselves?

People in America know the names and ideological leanings of the justices on their Supreme Court for a number of reasons. For a start, they take their civics a little bit more seriously on that side of the Atlantic – something that we could learn from.

But more than that, the American legal system is far more responsive to the citizenry than the British system is to us. One major difference is that many local judges are elected. Now, this may or may not be a good idea – and having watched a number of local races for positions on the bench, I have my grave doubts as to the wisdom of elected judges. But you can’t deny that you are likely to feel much closer to the legal system if you have a direct say in who gets to don the black robes.

Even more important is the fact that unlike we Brits, Americans have a written constitution to act as a common frame of reference when talking about legal matters. Even half-educated Americans will talk about whether something is “constitutional” or not, and apply this test to all manner of public policy debates, from government surveillance to gay marriage. This is important, because it gets people thinking beyond the mere fact of whether they agree or disagree with a particular law, and toward the broader question of exactly why the law in question is good or bad. That’s not to say the ensuing debate cannot still be ignorant and intemperate – it often is – but at least everyone is able to take part in the debate along the same parameters.

Consider the Edward Snowden leaks, when one whistleblower’s actions laid bare the extent of secret government surveillance in Britain, America and the other “Five Eyes” countries. In America, the people – outraged at this secret, systemic violation of their privacy – were able to haul officials in front of congressional committees and debate the legality of the government’s actions with reference to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of property. And in due course, the American government had to make a number of concessions and restrict its surveillance activity. In Britain, by contrast, we had David Cameron and Theresa May pompously telling us that they respect the “tradition of liberty” but are basically going to do whatever they want. And what recourse had we to stop them? None.

Then there is the central role which the US Supreme Court often plays in matters of great social importance in America. In Britain, Parliament’s “elected dictatorship” is the Alpha and the Omega for nearly all significant decisions made in this country – the government can pass or repeal any law almost at will and with no reference to any higher text or law, so long as it can muster the votes in the House of Commons. The courts then simply apply what has been handed down by Parliament, which is sovereign. Refreshingly, this is not so in the United States.

Consider just some of the most famous cases – household names, even to those of us living in Britain. Dred ScottCitizens United. Roe vs Wade. Brown vs Board of Education. We may know next to nothing about American current affairs, but we know that these relate to slavery, campaign finance, abortion and racial segregation. Because in America, the president is not the only person who matters in politics. Nor are the leaders of Congress. The third branch of government matters equally, and how the Supreme Court chooses which cases to hear and applies their interpretation of the Constitution to those cases constitutes a vital check and balance in the American system.

Can you name a comparably important British legal case? They do exist – the Al Rawi case, for example, with its implications for the legality of secret hearings, or Nicklinson vs Ministry of Justice, which confirmed the current illegality of voluntary euthanasia, or the “right to die”. But few people know about these cases or why they are important, because the British legal system is so much more remote and unaccountable to the people.

Finally, there is the question of sovereignty. The United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is and is not constitutional, and therefore applicable to American citizens. It cannot be shunted aside by an impatient government if it holds up or overturns key legislation, and nor can it be undermined from the outside – the court determines for itself which cases it will hear, and a majority decision made by five out of nine Supreme Court justices will then bind the government and lower courts. This goes against everything that the current British establishment – who are only too happy to wreck every institution and overturn any tradition in pursuit of their short term goals – stands for.

But crucially, the US Supreme Court is also not subordinate to any external or foreign body. By contrast, until Brexit is completed, the UK Supreme Court is treaty-bound to defer to the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), and must interpret all UK legislation not through the lens of compatibility with a British constitution, but rather to ensure its compliance with EU law and the European Convention of Human Rights.

This begs the question why we as a country do not trust ourselves enough to be the final arbiter of important issues affecting our society. Are we naturally more corrupt, untrustworthy or barbarous than our European neighbours, and in need of constant judicial restraint by our moral betters on the continent? Whatever the answer, the inescapable truth is that legal subjugation to an external, supranational body is the antithesis of national democracy.

So to recap, there exist a number of deficits between the American and UK legal systems in terms of ensuring citizen understanding and engagement with the judicial branch of government, namely:

1. A weaker sense of civic duty and engagement in Britain

2. Greater democratic distance between the people and the legal system in Britain, compared to America

3. Lack of a written British constitution as a common frame of reference when discussing legal matters

4. A much clearer link between decisions made in the US Supreme Court with American social policy

5. Lack of sovereignty: the American legal system is sovereign and subordinate to no external body, unlike the British legal system which (for now) remains subordinate to EU law

But in 2016, in the wake of the Brexit vote and with a key court case relating to the government’s execution of the referendum mandate to leave the EU having reached the Supreme Court, there is simply no good argument for continuing to abide such a remote, elitist and unaccountable legal system as we suffer in Britain. None. Especially when other countries, including our closest ally, have demonstrated a far better approach.

And anybody tempted to sniff haughtily at the American system, with their elected lower court judges and Scopes Monkey Trial culture wars should remember that however passionate and unseemly the public discourse can sometimes be across the Atlantic, this is only because more American people are actually engaged citizens with a moderate grasp of how their country actually works, and therefore confident enough to participate in that process. We should be so lucky to have a system as simple, accessible and easy to explain as they have in the United States.

And it should be a source of great shame to us that our journalists, politicians and private citizens often know more about another country’s legal system through watching Hollywood movies or Law & Order than they do about our own.

Right now, the American public is fixated on the issue of who President-elect Donald Trump will nominate to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the late Antonin Scalia – a first rate mind and writer of opinions and dissents which are accessible and entertaining even to laymen like myself. Americans care about who takes up the ninth seat on their Supreme Court, because unlike Britain, their legal system is clearly more than a plaything of the establishment or a rubber stamp for the government of the day.

The ninth justice of the US Supreme Court may well end up casting crucial swing votes in important matters of human governance in the next decades, such as the right to bear arms in self defence, the right to privacy and the right to free speech. And these decisions could well have tangible, real-world consequences for the 330 million people who live under the court’s jurisdiction.

Elevating the people and the institutions into the public consciousness is not crass sensationalism, as some may charge. On the contrary, focusing on the personalities helps to elevate the issues to a place of prominence in our public discourse, which is exactly what we should be doing here if our own elites were not so busy trying to hide from public accountability anywhere they can scurry – be it behind the black veil of EU lawmaking in Brussels or the bewigged, dusty obscurity of the British legal system.

It will be ironic if it takes a bitter legal dispute over a referendum fought partly over the principle of restoring the supremacy of British laws to force Britain to finally take a proper, critical look at our currently impenetrable legal system. But public interest in legal matters peaks only very rarely, and so those of us who want to see real legal and constitutional reform have a slim opportunity – but also an obligation – to make our case.

For as things stand, a constitution and legal system in force over 3,000 miles and an ocean apart often feels more familiar – and less remote – than our own.

As things stand, the highest court in our country is hearing arguments and preparing to make a decision concerning the most significant political change to come to Britain since the Second World War, yet for most of us, the judges and lawyers may just as well be speaking in Klingon for all that we will learn from the proceedings.

And a legal system which is made deliberately opaque and inaccessible by definition can neither claim legitimacy nor deliver justice, on the Article 50 appeal or anything else.

 

Supreme Court Justices - United Kingdom

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Brexit, Public Protest And The Judiciary

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No, criticising legal rulings is not fascism

Right now the internet is bubbling with a lot of nonsense about the role of the British judiciary as relates to Brexit, and though I have my head full of US election news ahead of tomorrow night’s Semi-Partisan live blog, there are a couple of pieces of egregious stupidity which need slapping down.

Today, of course, Nigel Farage made headlines by announcing his intention to lead a march of 100,000 people on the Supreme Court in an effort to demonstrate the public’s supposed strength of feeling about ramming Brexit through without any Parliamentary scrutiny.

From the Telegraph:

Nigel Farage is planning to lead a 100,000-strong march to the Supreme Court to coincide with the start of the Government’s attempt to stop peers and MPs delaying Brexit.

The march, organised by the anti-European Union campaign Leave.EU, will end with a rally in Parliament Square within sight of the court building where judges will be hearing the appeal.

The campaign group is planning to “crowd fund” £100,000 from its supporters to pay for barristers to represent Leave supporters in the court action.

This will mean that the anti-EU supporters will have their own barristers in the legal action, who can challenge claims made by Remain supporters and even the Government.

[..] A spokesman for the organisers said that Mr Farage and Leave.EU millionaire backers Arron Banks and Richard Tice had “secured support from thousands of Leave voters” for the march and legal action.

The march will most likely take place on December 5, which is expected to be the first day of the hearing. The Supreme Court has cleared four days for the hearing which will be streamed live on the internet.

As this blog recently laid out, I am fairly relaxed about the High Court case and the coming appeal to the Supreme Court. If David Cameron’s utterly useless government had a) planned the referendum properly, and b) considered the possibility of Leave winning then all of this might have been spelled out clearly at the time of the referendum, as it should have been.

That being said, MPs are aware of the hellfire which would rightly rain down on them if they seriously attempted to subvert the referendum result; if they now want to give their cosmetic blessing to a high-level instruction to the government to invoke Article 50 then they are welcome to go ahead.

Of course, some people inevitably then take it too far. UKIP leadership candidate Suzanne Evans quickly took to the airwaves making incoherent comments about the need to exercise “democratic controls” (whatever that means) over the judiciary.

From the BBC:

Ms Evans told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there were likely to be “protests and demonstrations”, but added that these would be peaceful.

She added: “I have a concern that Article 50 is not intended to facilitate nation states leaving the European Union. I think it’s there to frustrate them.”

Ms Evans said she thought the legal process could “water down Brexit”.

She added: “I think it’s amusing that the very same people who say it’s all about parliamentary sovereignty have, for the last 48 years, been trying to undermine parliamentary sovereignty”.

Ms Evans said: “I think there’s a debate to be had about whether or not judges are subject to some kind of democratic control.”

She did not want to undermine “their judicial independence”, but added: “I suppose that in this case, we have had a situation where we have judges committed to stay in the European Union…

“I’m questioning the legitimacy of this particular case. We know that the legal profession threw a collective hissy fit when we voted to leave.”

This is just incoherent garbage. “Democratic controls” could mean anything from moving towards a system where many judges are elected (as in many American states) toward some kind of constitutional fix to prevent judges from ruling to delay or impede the government from carrying out the instructions from this or any future referenda.

At no point does Suzanne Evans articulate what kind of controls she has in mind, which naturally plays into the hands of tremulous Remainers who are lightning-quick to portray any intemperate or ill-considered language from Brexiteers as a sign of the oncoming fascist apocalypse wrought by Brexit.

From the Huffington Post:

Her comments were branded “irresponsible”. by Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer. “Some of us have worked in countries where judges do as governments tell them and we know that is highly corrosive of the rule of law and democracy,” he told Today.

Starmer said the High Court had simply “upheld the rule of law” by deciding the prime minister did not have the power to trigger Article 50 without a parliamentary vote. “It’s a slippery slope,” he said of Evans’ comments. “Principle is really important here. The rule of law really matters. It underpins this country.”

However Evans said she had not been talking about judges being subject to elections, but instead “pre-appointment and confirmation hearings” and “scrutiny by select committees”.

Typically, hysterical and bitter Remoaners like Coke Zero Conservative Anna Soubry led the way with her cries of “fascism!”:

However, many pro-EU commentators, in their sudden high-minded support for the independence of the judiciary, seem to be suggesting that any form of protest directed at judges or the courts is absolutely unacceptable and fascistic, whatever the reason.

LBC’s notoriously and stridently europhile presenter James O’Brien ripped into the protest, essentially declaring that it is wrong to protest legal decisions and rulings:

Today James gave his reaction to the march and it’s safe to say he wasn’t impressed: “We’re post-truth now…what’s Mr Farage doing? Having a little march to the Supreme Court to complain about British judges enacting British laws in British courts.

“Truly we are down the rabbit hole!”

James continued: “He says to remind people what they voted for. I appreciate your core support is a little bit flaky pal, but I don’t think anyone’s forgotten what they voted for.

“It’s quite incredible. Yet we’re all still standing alongside, going: ‘Oh, I wonder why this is happening.’

“I’m not wondering why this is happening. I know why this is happening. Same reason it’s happened throughout history. You take angry people who feel like they’re not getting a fair deal, give them a false target for their fury and just sit back and watch the whole place burn down.”

Presumably O’Brien feels similarly sickened when crowds of people assemble in front of the United States Supreme Court to protest in favour of socially progressive outcomes, like striking down the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA). Except we all know that O’Brien would have no problem with such protests. Demonstrating about legal cases is abhorrent and intimidating when Nasty Brexiteers do it, with their thuggish and populist ways, but absolutely fine when the people march under a rainbow flag or advocate for a progressive cause.

But some of the most thin-skinned people of all are those within the legal profession, who apparently feel under assault by Brexiteers and parts of the media in the wake of the High Court decision.

From the Guardian:

The justice secretary, Liz Truss, is embroiled in an extraordinary row with the country’s barristers, after she was accused by the Bar Council of not fulfilling her role as “the conscience of the government”.

Truss has failed to condemn vitriolic attacks on the three judges who last week ruled that parliament must be given a vote before Britain triggers article 50, launching the Brexit process.

Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, the chairman of the Bar, the representative body for barristers in England and Wales, told the Observer that the cabinet minister had a duty to uphold the rule of law. “[Her job] is sometimes called the conscience of the government and one would expect her to speak out on something like this,” she said.

The high court ruling on Thursday, which the government has said it will appeal, unleashed a torrent of personal abuse directed at the judiciary, with one prominent cabinet member claiming the judges’ decision was “unacceptable”.

Under huge pressure to defend the independence of Britain’s judges, Truss – who is also lord chancellor – issued a terse statement on Saturday, observing: “The independence of the judiciary is the foundation upon which our rule of law is built and our judiciary is rightly respected the world over for its independence and impartiality.”

What more do these wobbly-lipped victims want? The High Court made a decision, and various citizens together with certain press outlets exercised their free speech rights to criticise that decision in loud and forceful terms. Did anybody attempt to physically or mentally coerce the judges who made the ruling? No. Has anybody hatched a plan to neuter the judiciary’s ability to rule in future such cases? No. So what, exactly, does the Bar Council want? Apparently they want to be exempt from criticism. And to elevate the judiciary into such an exalted position would be truly frightening and totalitarian.

If the Bar Council, assorted other members of the judiciary and a coterie of Remainers expect Liz Truss to stop the Big Bad Scary Media from uttering opinions about the validity of legal decisions or the motivations of the people who make them then they really have taken leave of their senses, as well as any conception of the role of a free press in a democracy.

All in all, many Remainers seem to be taking leave of their senses. Those people who never gave the judiciary a second thought but who are now lionising it simply because they delivered a verdict which seems to frustrate some Brexiteers need to realise that the judiciary is not always high-minded and impartial.

The BBC reports that Lord Judge, the former Lord Chief Justice, opined that the Supreme Court should not overturn the High Court’s ruling because to do so might be *perceived* as a victory for the demonstrators:

The justice system could be undermined if a ruling that only Parliament can trigger Brexit is overturned, a former lord chief justice has said.

Lord Judge said it would be seen as a victory for pro-Brexit demonstrators should the Supreme Court reverse last week’s controversial High Court ruling.

[..] Lord Judge, who was the most senior judge in England and Wales between 2008 and 2013 and who is now a crossbench peer, told BBC Newsnight that people were entitled to protest but he was concerned about the impact the case might have on the legal system.

“People can march as much as they like,” he said.

“I don’t think it makes any difference to the judicial decision but it does make a difference to public order.

“Let’s say for the sake of argument the Supreme Court decides the High Court was wrong, it will undoubtedly be conveyed as a victory for the demonstrators.

“It won’t be but that’s what will be conveyed. And if that is conveyed, you’ve undermined the administration of justice.”

In other words, the head of the judiciary from 2008 to 2013 thinks that the Supreme Court should make a decision not based on the law, but rather on a desire to signal to unruly Brexiteers that judges cannot be pushed around. Even if there are found to be legal grounds for overturning the lower court’s decision, Lord Judge believes that the Supreme Court should allow error to go uncorrected in order to put the people in their proper place.

And yet criticising these people or displaying the slightest scepticism about their motivations and objectivity is apparently tantamount to fascism.

Give me a break.

 

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On The Article 50 Ruling

royal-courts-of-justice

Everybody calm down

So as was always a possibility, the High Court has ruled that the government does not have the authority to initiate Britain’s secession from the EU by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without first winning a vote in Parliament.

From the Guardian:

Parliament alone has the power to trigger Brexit by notifying Brussels of the UK’s intention to leave the European Union, the high court has ruled.

The judgment (pdf), delivered by the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, is likely to slow the pace of Britain’s departure from the EU and is a huge setback for Theresa May, who had insisted the government alone would decide when to trigger the process.

The lord chief justice said that “the most fundamental rule of the UK constitution is that parliament is sovereign”.

A government spokesman said ministers would appeal to the supreme court against the decision. The hearing will take place on 7-8 December.

The lord chief justice said: “The court does not accept the argument put forward by the government. There is nothing in the 1972 European Communities Act to support it. In the judgment of the court, the argument is contrary both to the language used by parliament in the 1972 act, and to the fundamental principles of the sovereignty of parliament and the absence of any entitlement on the part of the crown to change domestic law by the exercise of its prerogative powers.”

Unless overturned on appeal at the supreme court, the ruling threatens to plunge the government’s plans for Brexit into disarray as the process will have to be subject to full parliamentary control.

Starry-eyed, anti-democratic campaign group New Europeans are naturally delighted by this development, which they see as the first step toward overturning/ignoring the EU referendum result and ploughing on as though their hateful and spurned vision of a federal continental union had not just been summarily rejected at the ballot box.

Moments ago this cautiously triumphant missive from New Europeans pinged into my inbox:

This only adds to the political challenges for those of us who are determined to stop Brexit come what may.

If Theresa May decides to call an early election as a result of the legal challenges, we will find ourselves with a new parliament elected with a huge Conservative majority and a parliamentary mandate to deliver Brexit.

In this scenario, there will be no chance of a second referendum on the deal. Britain will be out of the EU in no time and there will be no way back. The best we could do would be to secure safeguards for EU citizens already here and Brits in Europe through our campaigning in Brussels.

On the other hand, if Theresa May is able to start the negotiations and bring the deal back to the current parliament, it is plausible that she will not be able to carry a majority for her Brexit deal, particularly if it is a hard Brexit deal (as seems likely), the cost of which will be truly “titanic”.

Failure to secure a parliamentary majority on a Brexit deal will mean a new election and provides the opportunity for a second referendum on whatever deal she negotiates. That would not be a referendum like the last one on the question “Do you like migrants?”. It will be a referendum on the cost of Brexit and I predict that the public will vote over-whelmingly to stay.

There is a huge job to do if we are serious about stopping Brexit. One of the key arguments in the legal challenge must continue to be the focus of our campaigning. It is not acceptable for the government to remove the individual rights of citizens by way of a referendum.

The rights that EU citizens – and all British citizens are currently EU citizens- will lose on Brexit mean that from a legal, moral and political point of view Brexit should not be allowed to go ahead.

From a moral point of view? When will these preening, sanctimonious euro-moralists get over themselves?

Meanwhile, Pete North takes the news in his stride:

The government will appeal. I’m pretty relaxed about it to be honest. The vast majority of Tories will fall in behind May and Article 50 will pass even if it scrapes a majority. There is no question of it not being invoked. The main sticking point will be a parliamentary demand that Mrs May pursue membership of the single market which she is in all likelihood planning on doing anyway. Why they are bothering I don’t know since Mrs May can make no guarantees. If they do manage to block it by some obscure means then they are basically signing their own death warrants and I think they know this. No MP would ever be safe in public again. From an anti-establishment perspective either suits me fine. If they want to spit on Brexit then they are basically declaring open war on the public. That’s a battle they lose every time.

I’m inclined to agree. Any Remainer celebrations are premature in the extreme. Even assuming the government loses its appeal to the Supreme Court (and unlike some angry Brexiteers I do not claim to be enough of a British legal scholar to know whether or not the case deserved to win on its merits), Parliament would almost certainly not stand in the way of the referendum result, no matter the posturing of some pro-EU MPs.

I don’t really remember the Poll Tax riots toward the tail end of Thatcher’s government. I mean, I remember seeing stories about it on the news, but since I was only eight years old the political ramifications of what I was seeing rather eluded me. But despite my hazy memory, I think it is safe to say were MPs (and it would have to include many Labour MPs representing constituencies which voted to leave the EU) to vote against giving the government authority to invoke Article 50, the resulting conflagration would make the Poll Tax riots look like a summer picnic on Hampstead Heath.

Never mind the constitutional ramifications, and the bizarre state of limbo into which Britain would fall, caught between an instruction from the people to secede from the EU and the petulant demand of MPs to remain. That is nothing compared to the wave of fire and fury and civil disorder that would (rightly) be unleashed upon Parliament, the political class and those MPs responsible.

Now, in our benighted age it is true that we suffer a number of MPs of less than exceptional intelligence and ability. But even the slowest of the crop are capable of grasping that when push comes to shove, they do not want their final act on Earth to be telling the British people, including many of their own constituents, to go to hell – that we should pipe down, forget about independence from the EU and meekly listen to the instruction of our superiors.

Let the legal process unfold as it may. If putting the ball back in Parliament’s court  gives Remainers who now suddenly fetishise British parliamentary sovereignty (after having been happy to watch it relentlessly undermined through our years of EU membership) a furtive thrill, or helps to shore up their denial, then so be it.

They will find the survival instinct of the British political system is much stronger than their ongoing child’s tantrum about being parted from their beloved European Union.

 

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