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Author Topic: What exactly makes a good Supreme Court Justice?
Raymond Arnold
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During the Bush years, we had Harriet Miers who everyone universally thought was too inexperienced, and from what I remember the guy who ended up replacing her was disliked by liberals... because he was obviously conservative. And conservatives are suspicious of Sonia Sotomayor, "officially" because Obama chose her for her gender and ethnicity rather than her qualifications, but it seems to me like it basically boils down to "she's obviously liberal."

I'm a little confused as to what qualities actually ARE necessary to be a good Supreme Court Justice. Obviously you need to know the constitution and all sorts of laws and precedents and what-nots, and I guess be politically neutral enough (or pretend to be) that your decisions on what's constitutional or not makes coherent sense.

But beyond that, what precisely distinguishes a good judge from a "great" judge? The gray areas where "judicial activism" are possible are always going to come down to individual opinions.

It seems to me (albeit I have very little understanding of the process as a whole) that after you reach a certain level of experience, individual qualifications are less important than seeing to it that the court as a whole is a well balanced representation of America so that those grey areas aren't dominated by one school of thought, and considering that, I'd think that gender, race and culture is an important thing to consider.

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Samprimary
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There's basically a pattern that will continue for time immemorial.

If the nominee is being nominated by your party, you'll say that the test of their qualification is if they can judge with conviction and be a good representative of your side.

If the nominee is of the other party, the test of their qualification is "can they be neutral?"

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Tresopax
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I think the ability to interpret a law accurately is what makes a good Supreme Court Justice. That includes the ability to logically deduce what follows from a law, as well as what doesn't necessarily follow.
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Paul Goldner
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Define "accurately."
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Tresopax
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You accurately interpret a law if what you say it means is what it actually does mean. Like how an "accurate" sharpshooter hits the spot he is aiming at hitting. [Smile]
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Paul Goldner
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"You accurately interpret a law if what you say it means is what it actually does mean."

And how do you know what it does mean?

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The Pixiest
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One who reads, understands and follows the constitution. One with the guts to strike down anything that's unconstitutional.
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Mucus
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Low sodium and no trans fat
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Raymond Arnold
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The issue (which I think Paul is getting at except he's approaching with single sentences, presumably in a sort of Socratic process) is that if correct interpretation of laws is actually a rare trait even among judges, then the average citizen (even those with above average intelligence) wouldn't be able to tell which were the good judges and which were the bad ones.
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Paul Goldner
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Actually, no, that is not the point I'm getting at [Smile]
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Raymond Arnold
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Really? Well then I have no idea what you're trying to imply.
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Paul Goldner
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Well, how do you know what a law or a clause of the constitution actually means?
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Darth_Mauve
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Lets view the politics of any given issue as a spectrum of solutions. They range from -100 to 0 to +100.

Those on one side of the spectrum realize that anything at the outer edges is fanatical and extreme, but what they consider the middle, what they consider reasonable for someone to stretch to the opponents to grant, is still far from 0.

They may see the context as, well -100 to -75 is just the fringe. -74 to -55 is where I stand, so -25 or higher is just too far for me to go--its the fringe. Opponents say the similar, 75-100 is the fringe. 74-55 is where I stand. 25 and less is to far. What we get is a middle ground 25 to -25 where the two will not meet.

But there is more.

If one side thinks, "if I ask for -50, they'll give me -25 and I can live with that" or "they say the will go to 0, but that means they will really go to -25 if I force them." then there is even less of a middle ground.

Worse, if one side thinks, "We should do 25, but my constituents, or those I want to win over, want a hero. If I demand and fight for 60 or 70 they'll love me, even if I don't get it. Heck I don't even want 75, but if I ask for it, I get their votes." then there is not even an attempt to reach middle ground.

So when you ask what makes a great judge, you get people who want a judge who is reasonable, as they define reasonable. And they don't even try to agree on that definition.

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Papa Moose
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I assumed Paul's question was more along the lines of:

What does the law actually say?
What did the law mean when it was written, and is it different now?
What unstated assumptions/definitions might affect what the law means?
What did the writer(s) of the law intend for it to say/mean?
What are unavoidable consequences of the law's meaning?
What are possible consequences of the law's meaning?

Etc.

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scifibum
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I think it is very simple: people will very often disagree about whether a judge is accurately interpreting the law.

Intended "accuracy" can be aimed at original intent, or it can be aimed at a correct application of a principle to a novel situation. Neither standard is likely to have total consensus.

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Raymond Arnold
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Perhaps a good alternate question: What makes a "bad" Supreme Court Justice? Specifically, are there Supreme Court Justices that you feel made bad decisions? (I know there are Supreme Court Justices that I disagree with, but I'm unfamiliar enough with the process to point at a particular one and say they "didn't do it right.")
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andi330
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My response to the initial question would be:

Nobody actually knows.

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Raymond Arnold
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Hmm. This topic isn't much fun when everyone is so reasonable. Maybe I should go over to the Ornery forums and post it there.
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Tresopax
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quote:
"You accurately interpret a law if what you say it means is what it actually does mean."

And how do you know what it does mean?

There could be many correct answers to that question. I think most judges attain it in a way similar to the way most sharpshooters learn accuracy - by learning techniques from the most accurate experts that came before, and through practice. They go to law school, they practice law, etc. In time they become more accurate in their judgements.
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Paul Goldner
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With a target, there is a visible, and objective, place to aim...the bullseye. With a law, what is analogous to the bullseye on a target? How do we know when a judge has made an accurate interpretation of the law?
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imogen
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We don't. Because the law is a man-made creation, and is continuously evolving.

There is no absolute right interpretation of the law*, just a consensus as to what is the right interpretation.

Which I think is what you were headed towards.

*Unless you are a proponent of natural law. (Laws are because of the inherent rightness of their content, not because of any process making - as opposed to positivism)

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Frisco
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Once you're a Supreme Court Justice, you no longer have to be good. Only the worst one gets any real attention, so you just need to work on not doing anything more stupid than that guy.
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MrSquicky
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For me, the three top things that I expect from a Supreme Court Justice is superlative knowledge, judgment, and responsibility*. It can be really darn hard to figure out if someone has these, however.

* Assuming I don't have major problems with their judicial philosophy.

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Tresopax
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quote:
With a target, there is a visible, and objective, place to aim...the bullseye. With a law, what is analogous to the bullseye on a target? How do we know when a judge has made an accurate interpretation of the law?
I believe the the bullseye is analogous to the objective true meaning of the law. I don't think we can know for sure when a judge has accurately hit that bullseye. We can apply our own sense of the meaning of the law, but our sense is probably even more flawed than the experienced judge's.

That changes the question though. Instead of "What exactly makes a good Supreme Court Justice?" we are now asking "how exactly can we recognize a good Supreme Court Justice?" I think that is much trickier, and I don't really know how, except by collectively applying our own flawed opinions and hoping that whoever appears to us to be most accurate actually is most accurate.

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twinky
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quote:
Originally posted by Tresopax:
I believe the the bullseye is analogous to the objective true meaning of the law.

But what is this? Does it even exist?
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Tresopax
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Yes it exists - it is what makes it possible for everyone, including the courts, to be wrong about their interpretation of a law. If the law says "Always stop at a red light", it doesn't matter how many people or how many courts interpret this as "You can go through red lights whenever you want"; they are all wrong because that contradicts what the true meaning of the law is. It's why an illegal election in Iran is still illegal even if the governing judges there decide to interpret it as legal.
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Raymond Arnold
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No one's arguing it's possible for a judge to midread what a law says and directly contradict it. The points of disagreement are in how to extropolate what a law implies. Does a right to privacy mean total control over your own body, including parts of it that will later develop into a fully individual person? Do rights to equality mean that gay people can get married? Lots of people think the answers to those questions are obvious. Lots of other people think the first group of people are obviously wrong.
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Paul Goldner
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So, since we're talking about supreme court justices, and red light cases do not come to the supreme court, what is the true and objective meaning of "No cruel and unusual punishment?"
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MouetteSheridan
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The ability to write clear and concise opinions...

/hopeful 1L. [Razz]

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The Rabbit
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I thought about asking this question weeks back when people were saying "They should pick the best qualified person, regardless of gender or ethnicity". I don't think its in the least bit obvious what makes some one well qualified to be a supreme court judge. Best qualified is even worse.

In my mind, there are two questions of importance. The first is what qualities I would like to see in a judge and second is the qualities I would like to see in the SCOTUS as a collective body.

Qualities I think are essential in a judge would include,

1. Good critical reasoning skills.
2. Open mindedness, i.e. the ability and willingness to consider all sides of an issue, new ideas and different perspectives.
3. A good grasp on how things are connected and the long range implications of decisions
4. Strong Scholarship.
5. Strong communication skills in particular the ability to formulate clear incisive questions and to write clear, concise and persuasive opinions.
6. scrupulous integrity.

I don't think experience either as a judge or a lawyer is particularly important but I think it would be very difficult to assess the above 6 points unless the person has a track record as a judge and a legal scholar. I consider knowledge or the law less important than a more general strength as a scholar. No one will have an in depth knowledge of all the legal issues that will come before the court, but a good scholar will have the research skills necessary to gain that knowledge when specific issues come before the court.

If I consider the court as a whole, I think diversity is a critical issue, and I don't just mean ethnic and gender diversity. I think that the court will be better equipped to serve the public if it contains people with diverse backgrounds and opinions. I'd like to see diversity in socio-economic background, educational training, political affiliation, schools of legal scholarship, religion/philosophy, ethnicity and so forth.

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Tresopax
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quote:
So, since we're talking about supreme court justices, and red light cases do not come to the supreme court, what is the true and objective meaning of "No cruel and unusual punishment?"
If I could tell you that with accuracy, *I* should be the next Supreme Court justice.

Given I haven't even studied law, I'm much more confident in my judgment on simpler things - like knowing that "stop at a red light" does not mean "you can drive through a red light".

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Paul Goldner
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"If I could tell you that with accuracy, *I* should be the next Supreme Court justice.
"

How would you know, how would anyone know, if someone explained the true and objective meaning of the phrase?

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Tresopax
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I wouldn't know - not for sure, at least. The best I could do is use my judgment just like the person explaining it to me did.
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Raymond Arnold
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Well, okay, but that makes your definition of "good" Supreme Court Justice remarkably useless.

I pretty much agree with Rabbit.

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Tresopax
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Not useless. Just harder to use than something like "A good Supreme Court Justice is anyone who is pro-life." Such a definition would be easy to apply, but wouldn't reflect the reality that trying to figure out who will make a great judge really is a difficult task that is impossible to do with absolute certainty.
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Paul Goldner
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Let's say on a cruel and unusual punishment case involving applying the death penalty in particular circumstances the supreme court splits 5-4. You apply your judgement and say the court ruled correctly, I apply my judgement and say it ruled incorrectly. How do we resolve our differences, if "cruel and unusual," has a true and objective meaning?
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AchillesHeel
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I personally feel safer, knowing that Judge Sotomayor will most likely be appointed, and she knows just how dangerous numbchucks are.

Why I have to watch my news on Comedy Central to learn this, I will never know.

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