Dear Justice Newbie

The Job of a Lifetime

Welcome to the Supreme Court, Justice Alito, the last job that you are likely to have. After this, it’s retirement and death with the latter guaranteed and the former likely to come only with ill health. So, this is as good as it’s going to get. Sure, you could hope to become Chief Justice some day, but only four out of the mere sixteen Chief Justices have ever been elevated from within the Court.

Besides, you’ll be lucky to outlast Roberts unless you want to go all Borgia in the Court cafeteria. That’s unlikely though, since the gravitational pull of the legislature would have attracted you by now if you had any leanings toward mosh pits and switchblades. You got here because you’re a workaholic and you like making decisions for people too overheated to negotiate. Moreover, you think you know stuff and feel clever in small groups. Your horoscope predicts great things every day.

Seriously, you got this position because you managed not to piss off the President when you spent some time together. Other people had already vetted you, so what did the two of you have to discuss? If the law even came up, then I would be surprised. He suspects you won’t damage his popularity too much and might secretly push forward his agenda long after he’s climbed off his mountain bike for good.

Generally speaking, Supreme Court Justices have minds of their own and realize that once sworn in, they can do whatever they want. After all, it’s now your legacy, not some President who screamed across the horizon like a shooting star. No Justice has ever been impeached, let alone removed from office. Be careful though, you are liable to lose your “common touch,” if you ever had one or wanted one. Only eight other people in the country have a similar gig. And all of you went to law school.

Let’s face it, your new post turns out to have very little to do with agendas, at least the kind that generate a lot of press and decades of editorializing. Your daily schedule will involve sitting around chatting with your clerks and thinking deep thoughts. Even so, no one is marching around outside the court waving placards and chanting “Down With Gonzales v. Raich!” It’s still Roe v. Wade and little else. Considering that during the Court’s last session rulings came down on criminal sentencing, environmental law, capital punishment, eminent domain, and marijuana, you would think that people might have moved on. This is the judiciary, not the legislature, as you will constantly have to remind family members over hot dogs and potato salad during the summer break.

Speaking of defending your life, wasn’t that Congressional hearing fun? You probably feel some resentment. Hard to believe every nominee does not become bellicose after that ordeal? Perhaps you could work through your anger by popping wheelies in the parking garage rather than ruling against an endangered species?

Let’s remember, the Court is reactionary (though I’m sure we’ll be talking about this a lot). Someone has to bring the case before it. Justices do not ride around the countryside like medieval knights righting wrongs. The Court exists because people do not get along. The Court exists because reasonable minds disagree. It exists because elected officials can go too far. The Court is not the Supreme Court of U.S. Law Schools. The Court is not the world’s most exclusive club.

You may be there for life, but you still serve at the will of the people. And the people want wisdom, not ideology. Yes, you will be a topic of conversation during the year (Mostly “Alito gave good hearing” not “Alito writes swell opinions.”). In very general terms, ideological pedagogues on the Court often prove wiser than expected. And maybe wisdom does rise from the shadows. Hindsight may be our surest guide, which is why you need to think about the past so much.

So, you and your colleagues will walk the magical giggle path of this session together, prodding each other about the choices that you make. You’ll visit more history than any current doctoral thesis in any U.S. college (remembering that you have become history alongside your famous predecessors and their decisions). Over these months, commentators will attempt to deconstruct the legalese that is thrown around and figure out what you’re really trying to accomplish. You may even take a side trip to legal ethics in the hope of reassuring the populace along with ourselves.

By the by, no disrespect is intended by the “Newbie” nickname. A part of me wanted to conclude this missive with “sucks to be you,” so I do understand that your job is hard enough without hearing “Yo, Newbie” echoing down the halls whenever Scalia wants somebody to run to the cafeteria for a cola. On the other hand, the Supreme Court is the ultimate collection of know-it-all alphas and nobody loves a good nickname quite as much as an alpha male. Best wishes for a safe and wise term.


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