Everyone has commented on how unprecedented is the current Democratic filibuster campaign against President Bush’s appellate court nominees, Miguel Estrada and Pricilla Owen—well-qualified judges even according to the liberal American Bar Association but anathema to Democrats because of their opposition to liberal judicial activism. What hasn’t sufficiently been noticed is that the filibusters rest on a new jurisprudential theory—call it Schumerism, after the New York senator who is its most strident proponent. Extremist and utterly contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, Schumerism promises to wreak incalculable damage to our political fabric as the battle for control of the nation’s courts widens.
For two years, Schumer has tirelessly waged a campaign to change the criteria by which the Senate ratifies presidential judicial picks. For much of American history, the guideposts the Senate has relied on to confirm judges are those Alexander Hamilton laid down in The Federalist: integrity, intelligence and temperament, and faithfulness to the rule of law—terms on which Estrada and Owen pass with high marks. But instead of sticking with Hamiltonian standards, Schumer says, senators must make their Number One concern a judge’s “ideology”—by which he means the judge’s private political opinions, as well as the kind of political results his decisions have led to in past cases and will potentially lead to in the future. Further, judges whose legal and personal views on such hot-button political issues as affirmative action and abortion are outside the “mainstream” should be disqualified from sitting on the federal bench, regardless of their competence or integrity or respect for the law. As for how to find the “mainstream” in this new scheme, that’s easy: Schumerism peremptorily defines conservative views as “extremist”—not even worthy of rebuttal, and certainly deserving no place in the judiciary.
Schumerism is now the regnant jurisprudential philosophy among Senate Democrats, who seek to make it the benchmark for confirming any future Bush Supreme Court nominations, two of which may be forthcoming this summer with the rumored retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The naked partisanship of Schumerism goes beyond anything the Democrats and their allies have asserted in earlier judicial battles. In defeating the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork and in trying to defeat the nomination of Clarence Thomas in years past, the Democrats still felt constrained by Senate tradition to argue against confirmation primarily by raising questions of temperament and integrity. No longer. Simply being a conservative is now enough on the Democratic view to disqualify a nominee. The Dems justify the filibuster of Pricilla Owen, for example, chiefly because on the Texas Supreme Court she argued in one case that parents should play a role in the decision-making process for their minor daughter’s quest for an abortion. Most Americans support parental notification laws for abortion, but never mind—any judge willing to contemplate any limitation on any abortion at any time is a “right-wing extremist.” Miguel Estrada is filibusterable because he is reputed to be staunchly conservative in his political views—as if many Americans didn’t share similar values.
But what’s ultimately at stake in the struggle over Bush’s two contested judicial picks is far more important than the fate of these particular nominations. The very nature of the courts is up for grabs. For five decades, liberals have happily watched an activist judiciary twist the words of the Constitution and contort statutes to make them produce “progressive” policy outcomes—everything from affirmative action to partial-birth abortion—that the Left never could have won from voters. Liberals have defended the judiciary’s expansive policymaking by saying that it simply grew out of a “Living Constitution”—a document whose majestic principles, interpreted by wise judges (meaning judges who shared a “progressive” worldview), could adapt to the new challenges and needs of every era.
Conservatives have long lamented this trend toward legislating from the bench, and they want the courts restored to some semblance of what the Framers clearly intended them to be—neutral referees, applying the law, rather than creating it. The conservative jurisprudence of originalism, favored by Bush’s judicial appointees, accordingly directs judges to stick to the Constitution’s actual words and structure, as the Framers understood them, and to read statutes to mean what they say. Originalists believe that judges can and must be impartial interpreters of the law, and that legal texts have a limited range of meaning, which can be rightly or wrongly glossed. Justice Thomas, a leading proponent of this jurisprudence, writes: “In order to be a judge, a person must attempt to exorcise himself or herself of the passions, thoughts, and emotions that fill any frail human being. He must become almost pure, in the way fire purifies metal, before he can decide a case.” The prospect of an originalist bench bent on depoliticizing the law in this fashion is an enormous threat to the Left, since it would deprive liberals of their extra-democratic edge and could even sweep away some court-mandated liberal policy gains as unconstitutional.
Panicked by the possibility of a Bushified judiciary, the Schumerian Democrats have trained their fire on originalism. Sounding strikingly like the cynical “legal realists” of the 1940s, the Dems are arguing that all approaches to law are at bottom a matter of power politics. The originalists might claim to be faithful to legal texts and precedent and to remove politics from jurisprudence, but that’s either a fib or a delusion—judicial interpretation is unavoidably “ideological,” even if the ideology is that judges should judge rather than legislate. What Bush’s judges, like all judges, are really up to, Schumerism charges, is twisting the law so that it produces their favored policies. And since what is at stake in the nation’s highest courts is so momentous—abortion, affirmative action, free speech, property rights, voucher programs—and since what the courts do is in this view a kind of highfalutin political spin anyway, Schumerism licenses the use of any means necessary, short of breaking the law, to retain a liberal judiciary: calling Bush nominees “extremist right-wing ideologues” out to “attack working families” (as the DNC shrills) for holding perfectly legitimate political and legal opinions; denouncing in Orwellian style judges who seek merely to apply the law as “right-wing judicial activists”; smearing nominees as closet racists; trying to create by filibuster a new supermajority requirement for judicial confirmations, shredding Senate norms and American constitutional precedent in the process; and going even further, proposing, as Schumer himself has done, to take away the president’s constitutional power to select judges and turn it over to state committees, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, making impossible the appointment of a judge unacceptable to Democrats.
The elite media has signed on to Schumerism, too. A typical example: a recent New York Times Magazine cover story on the Fourth Circuit appeals court, one of the most intellectually muscular courts in the nation. Most of the Fourth Circuit’s judges are committed to originalism. But the article’s author, Deborah Sontag, made no effort to understand how the court’s majority reached its decisions. Clearly, in her view, a court whose majority allowed a minute of silence in Virginia schools, ended court-ordered busing in Charlotte, and upheld a state parental notification law for minors seeking abortions was just using the law to promote its preferred right-wing policy options. Even when confronted by the fact that rising judicial star J. Michael Luttig had written several Fourth Circuit decisions that took “unexpectedly liberal” positions, Sontag could see only a crudely political motive: “He is loath to be predictable and eager to be perceived as more moderate in anticipation of a Supreme Court opening”—so as to push the right-wing agenda from the highest bench, she implies. But in fact, Luttig explicitly warns against the politicization of law, and like the majority he often writes for, he has won respect for the analytical rigor of his opinions.
Should Schumerism become orthodoxy among judges, the consequences for our constitutional democracy will be grim. As Justice Thomas notes, if law is just politics “then there are no courts at all, only legislatures, and no Constitution or law at all, only opinion polls.” And if an independent judiciary becomes just a myth masking the exercise of raw political power, George Mason law prof Nelson Lund tersely argues, “we should really start asking why these politicians-in-robes should enjoy life tenure—and why they should get the last word on so many important policy issues.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, blunter still, says: “It is simply not compatible with democratic theory that laws mean whatever they ought to mean, and that unelected judges decide what that is.”
That’s why so much rides on the final outcome of the battle over the Estrada and Owen nominations. Unfortunately, Republican efforts to defeat the filibusters—six times in Estrada’s case, twice in Owen’s—have fizzled. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and ten other senators (among them Democrat Zell Miller) have proposed a change to Senate rules on filibustering judicial nominations that would gradually lower the votes required to end a filibuster, but changing Senate rules requires at least 67 votes, making Democratic resistance impossible to get around.
The best course of action for Republicans may be to take their case to the public vigorously during the next election. Texas senator John Cornyn, who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, says that “it may take an intervening election,” bringing a bigger Republican majority, to resolve the judicial crisis. There’s good reason to think that the filibusters could hurt the Democrats’ chances for retaking the Senate in 2004. “Have they not seen, have they not heard,” notes legal writer Terry Eastland, “that in 2002 Republicans won the Senate in part because Bush made the Democrats’ treatment of his nominees an issue?” With 19 of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs in 2004 currently held by Democrats, and the Dems confident of holding only 9 of those seats, Republicans, led by the president, may be able to build a filibuster-proof majority, lay Schumerism to rest, and restore greater sanity to the judiciary, right up to the Supreme Court.
Brian C. Anderson is senior editor of City Journal and the author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political. His writings have appeared in First Things and The Public Interest.