Quirky Justices

June 11th, 2009

Amid the microscopic examination of everything Judge Sonia Sotomayor ever did or said, to include what parts of the pig she enjoys eating, it’s nice to see some reality injected into the conversation.  When Arrogance Takes the Bench, a New York Times article by Noah Feldman, does just that.

Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School, discusses some of the quirks and odd behavior of Supreme Court justices.  He proves the point that judges, including Supreme Court justices, are just people like the rest of us.  Feldman wrote:

To hear both critics and defenders talk about the fitness of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, you’d think the most successful Supreme Court justices had been warm, collegial consensus-builders. But history tells a different story. Measured by their lasting impact on Constitution and country, many of the greatest justices have been irascible, socially distant, personally isolated, arrogant or even downright mean.

Here are a few of Feldman’s examples of past justices:

Stephen J. Field, appointed by Lincoln, once insulted a woman’s romantic past so outrageously from the bench that her husband later attacked him on a train — and was shot dead by Field’s bodyguard. …

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. could be charming when he wanted — he especially enjoyed conversation with beautiful, titled women — but he could be brutally dismissive as well. He notoriously approved of sterilizing a woman believed to have a low intelligence because, he said, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” …

The epitome of a great justice with a rough character was William O. Douglas, the liberal who found the right to privacy in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Bill of Rights, and thus paved the way for landmark decisions on abortion and gay rights. Douglas was an egotist who barely spoke to his colleagues, loved to vote alone, and once said that his law clerks were “the lowest form of human life.” His personal life was a mess: his divorce in 1953 was the first ever for a sitting justice; he soon followed it up with the second and then the third (each of his four wives was younger and blonder than the previous one). It has never been said better of anyone that he loved humanity and hated people. …

Serving alongside Douglas was another great liberal, Hugo Black, who began his political career by joining the Ku Klux Klan and relying in part on its extensive organization to get himself elected a senator from Alabama. Black then concealed his membership while in Washington, never mentioning it even to Roosevelt. As a sitting senator he was confirmed to the court in less than a week, so by the time the story of his Klan membership became public, he was already in (black) robes.

The quirks that have been discovered about Judge Sotomayor aren’t that bad.  And who knows — she probably won’t be worse than some of her predecessors on the Court, and she may be as good as some of the real oddballs turned out to be.


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4 Responses to “Quirky Justices”



  1. Brian Bagent |

    Too bad Douglas looked to “penumbras” and “emanations”. He should have been reading the Federalist Papers instead. Madison, Jay, and Hamilton made it quite clear that the rights to privacy, freedom of association, and the freedom to travel were so fundamental that they didn’t even bear mentioning in the constitution.

    Or, he could have read the 9th amendment until it sank in. Instead, he paved the way for lunacy the likes of which the founders would never have thought possible in rational beings.


  2. Tom |

    The most significant result of Douglas’ penumbras and emanations is, of course, Roe v. Wade. Without regard to whether one supports choice on abortion, it’s terrible law and a mangling of the Constitution. There’s a good discussion at Wikipedia on the criticisms of legal scholars, many of them liberals. They include Laurence Tribe, Alan Dershowitz, Cass Sunstein, et al.


  3. Brian Bagent |

    Tom, I couldn’t agree more. I can think of a few others that arose in that era…Miranda vs. AZ comes to mind. So does Sierra Club v. Morton. Or the stay of execution he granted to the Rosenbergs. Or…the list is long.

    Few have done more to undermine the Constitution, to turn stare decisis on its head, to simply legislate from the bench. How ironic that the longest serving justice ever was probably the worst.


  4. Harvey |

    Thanks for a better understanding of what we can expect from “Justice” Sotomayor.


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